This article was originally published for elpais.com on December 7, 2016. It has been translated from Spanish to English to accommodate our readers. The full, unedited version can be found here.
Harvey Milk Promenade Park is the first park in the United States whose name pays tribute to a gay activist civil rights: Harvey Milk.
Milk was an American politician and activist, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States in 1977. A year later he was brutally murdered with the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, by former councilman of San Francisco, Dan White. Milk, played by Sean Penn in the Oscar-winning film, Milk, has become not only an icon of the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement but of rights civilians in general.
This park, full of fruit trees, is located in the heart of the city of Long Beach, 30 kilometers south of the city of Los Angeles (California, United States). In it stands a huge mural composed of over 400,000 mosaics reminiscent of the historic struggle of the LGBT movement. Next to the mural, a rainbow colored flag symbolizes a gay pride flag of large dimensions throughout the 365 days a year in the Equality Plaza, something that local authorities consider a pioneering gesture for a public park.
Although the city of Long Beach has an enviable climate – it can rely on 300 days per year of uninterrupted sunny days – the park’s city center remains empty during the week days, while people work in offices nearby. In order to encourage entrepreneurs and professionals to leave their offices, the mayor of Long Beach seeks to break the prevailing office culture, creating the first shared outdoor workspace in the U.S. And what better place to carry out this experiment than at the emblematic Equality Square in the center of Harvey Milk Park?
The innovative aspect of this initiative is not only the idea – to create an outdoor working space in a park public – but the process, as the mayor made an open call to the public, inviting them to propose ideas and solutions that will transform this space.
Participation in this national challenge was open to anyone with an idea, project or product to habilitate the park into a workspace, providing items such as desks, chairs, shady spots or stations to charge mobile devices or computers, among others.
Among the proposals received, the Long Beach City Council selected seven finalists who have now been invited to showcase their ideas and products in the Equality Plaza, from December 5 to 16. During this period, residents of Long Beach will vote on the initiatives they like, thus participating in the selection process of the winners, and therefore the co-designing of the square. During the days that the exhibition is open, the city will organize social events, including a food and drink social, sports competitions and activities of augmented reality, in order to attract more visitors to the square.
"Honoring the legacy of Harvey Milk and celebrate our heroes LGBT is critical to the success of this park," said Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez. "This showcase is a great opportunity to reimagine the use of the park and revive the legacy of Harvey Milk, gathering the community around the square."
Among the finalists exhibiting their proposals during these days in Long Beach is James Wulf, a creator in Santa Monica that designs ping-pong tables that easily convert into meeting tables, and Soofa, a start-up from Cambridge producing urban intelligent street furniture. Also among the finalists is the company Nerei, composed by a group of architects and urban designers with offices in Bilbao and Singapore. Nerei introduced the Birloki system, an interactive urban flag pole that has a screen of data exchange that connects the municipality with citizens, and also recharges mobile devices and incorporates different environmental sensors, among other features.
"Designers from around the world competed to display their innovative products in Long Beach," said John Keisler, director of Innovation Team of City Hall. "This is a unique opportunity to redesign the future of our public spaces in a participatory way, right here in Harvey Milk Park Promenade.”
Long Beach is carrying out this initiative in collaboration with Citymart , a company based in New York that transforms the way that cities are facing urban and social challenges through entrepreneurship and citizen participation. The transformation of this square is expected to increase foot traffic, collaboration between entrepreneurs and residents, increased cultural and social events in the square, and promote local businesses in the area.
This coastal town of less than 500,000 residents in Southern California demonstrates with this initiative that it has understood that as the city develops and changes, public spaces must also evolve to reflect and meet the changing needs of the community as well. The trend is that citizens are increasingly involved in the transformation of public spaces. After all, they are the ones who end up using them.
The Innovation of the City of Long Beach is responsible for leading the project. Launched in 2015 by Mayor Robert Garcia, this atypical innovation team has the mission to deepen the urban challenges, encourage citizen empathy and work within a participatory manner to co-create solutions that deliver sustainable results with and for its residents.
Paula García Serna, founder of the initiative Towards The Human City and researcher of urban development initiatives.