Up to the challenge of making better public spaces in Miami?


About the Public Space Challenge

The Our Miami Open Space Challenge opens Monday, March 3. To enter or for more information,

Workshops for prospective participants will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on the following dates:

March 5: South Dade Regional Library, 10750 SW 211th St.

March 6: West Dade Regional Library, 9445 SW 24th St.

March 12: North Dade: Sherbondy Village Community Center, 215 Perviz Ave, Opa-locka, FL 33054

March 13: Liberty City, Caleb Center, 5400 NW 22nd Ave., 4th floor.

March 19: (12-1pm) Webinar

March 26: Downtown Miami, MCAD, 100 NE 1st Ave.

On a Wynwood street, a big chalkboard was hung over an unsightly chainlink fence, creating an instantly popular, ever-changing canvas for spontaneous public expression.

In a parking lot in the middle of Biscayne Boulevard, a temporary farmer’s market sprung up, bringing organic produce, smoothies and freshly baked goods to the doorstep of downtown Miami’s new condo dwellers.

On a long-vacant lot in Brownsville, trash and weeds were cleared away and four soil beds installed for a community garden that’s about ready to start growing food.

Those were three of the winners in last year’s Our Miami Public Space Challenge, a competition in which two foundations put up good money to fund residents’ small-but-potent ideas for improving and bringing together their neighborhoods.

And now they’re doing it again.

The Miami Foundation is launching the challenge’s second edition on Monday with an open call for creative notions — the more, the merrier. The foundation is putting up $100,000, to be supplemented by $30,000 more from the Health Foundation of South Florida for proposals that focus on health. The Miami Herald is a media partner in the competition.

Last year’s competition garnered more than 250 submissions from all corners of Miami Dade County. This year, sponsors are hoping for even more.

The goal: To get people thinking about what makes for vibrant public spaces in which neighbors can gather and interact in a city that doesn’t have nearly enough of that, and to build some new ones quickly. Those places can be anything from a big city park that could stand a little improvement, to an underused downtown square or just a shady sidewalk where neighbors congregate and could use a bench or two.

The idea arose from studies showing a close link between fiscal prosperity and cities whose residents feel an affinity for their hometowns and neighborhoods. That’s in part because cities with places that people are glad to live in tend to attract and retain the skilled workers who drive economic growth. But Miami’s scores on residents’ emotional attachment to the city in a recent, three-year study were mediocre.

“Last year, we got tremendous response and built excitement,’’ said Stuart Kennedy, senior programs officer at the Miami Foundation. “This year is about fueling that momentum.

“We want everyone’s ideas, whether practical or pie-in-the-sky. It’s about starting the community conversation about public spaces.’’

Take the big, unappealing parking lots that occupy the center of Biscayne Boulevard, perhaps the city’s most scenic street. Would it be better if they were instead used for green space, or market stalls, or any other type of space to attract people instead of cars?

That’s what Melissa Hunsberger and Maggie Fernandez of Our Biscayne thought when they submitted their idea for a temporary farmer’s market to the competition.

“We hope to change how people see this space, so maybe they’ll demand something different,’’ Hunsberger said.

They hope to bring back the market, which ran every Saturday in February at the lot at Northeast Second Street, though maybe at a different downtown location. But they said the landlord, the Miami Parking Authority, proved an eager partner and is open to ideas for new uses for the lots.

Mitchell Waksman, who rode his bike from his downtown Miami high-rise to the market last week, said he hopes it does return.

“I came here the last two weeks,” said Waksman, while picking up ceviche and fresh vegetables. “It’s convenient, way easier than driving to CVS or Publix. It’s fantastic.’’

In a similar vein, Gayle Zalduondo was trying to figure out how to make a chainlink fence a little less unattractive when she hit on the chalkboard notion. Since the specially manufactured board went up in December for Art Basel, along with a box of colored chalk and an eraser, it’s worked like a charm.

Artists have made pictures. So have regular people. Parents bring children by to draw on it. Inspirational messages have gone up, along with occasional curse words, but those tend to get erased quickly, Zalduondo said. So far, there’s been no vandalism.

“It’s always different. It’s neat. There have been a lot of positive messages. Lots. The idea is to engage the community, and it’s nice to be able to express yourself,’’ said Zalduondo, who hopes to replicate the idea elsewhere around the city.

“There’s plenty of ugly chainlink fences out there, and the whole idea is to transform them.’’

The competition makes it easy to submit an idea: go to the website,, drop a pin on a map corresponding to the proposal location, and answer a couple of questions. Visitors to the site can also view all submissions.

To encourage applications and help folks develop their ideas, the foundation is sponsoring a series of community workshops starting March 5.

If your idea gets picked as a finalist, you will get technical assistance to flesh it out before the last selection round, which will happen in late April. A panel of experts will select winners around late May or early June.

Miami Herald photographer Marsha Halper contributed to this report.

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