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Lessons from a parking lot

September 20, 2015


There’s a parking lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan that contains a MBA course worth of applied innovative thinking. It also demonstrates excellence in urban design and how to create a beloved civic asset.

If we want healthier cities, we need to continuously ask, “What more can happen here?”

Mark Hodesh and Bill Zolkowski are long-time business associates who saw the untapped after-hours potential of eight on-site parking spaces at Downtown Home & Garden. Parking lots rarely come to mind as the scene of healthy interaction and civic-minded commerce. It took these two highly imaginative minds to act on the idea that has become Bill’s Beer Garden six nights a week during high season.

The 20-photo essay above introduces a place that must be experienced. Bill’s Beer Garden is the setting for diverse conversations, special performances, organized political discussions, movie nights and celebrating the arrival of Spring.

Some lessons that can be found here:

  • how to grow a thriving enterprise based on deep roots and values
  • how to expand revenue on a site without extensive construction
  • how to stay universally relevant by transcending a young and hip market for entertainment
  • how to add to the aesthetic quality of streets and urban life
  • how to see opportunities that are hiding in plain sight

Innovation happened here as a result of:

  • being proactive in thinking about change
  • seeing a gap in the market for cross-cultural social interaction
  • collaboration between business associates with energy and experience
  • paying attention to business examples elsewhere (Mark adapted BBG from a model he saw in Brooklyn, NY)
  • an organic way forward that emerged naturally, rather than pursuing a rigid plan

Here is a one-minute video which conveys some of the conviviality:


-Sharon VanderKaay

Changing our visual diet

September 8, 2015


Barry Lord has written an important book on the current (slow-but-sure) shift from our dominant culture of thoughtless consumption to “stewardship of the earth and the body.”

My photo essay explores the evolution of public markets as an early indication of that shift.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Public seating for a new social era

August 29, 2015


This photo essay is about the role of public seating in nurturing human relationships and a healthier state of mind.

A decade or so ago it was common to see hostile – and sometimes pathogenic – parks and public spaces. I remember sitting in NYC’s Bryant Park (for a few minutes during the ’80’s) when it was scary. Decaying conditions and anti-social behavior were the norm when there was no direct involvement by each community in ongoing improvements.

In recent years, new standards for civic engagement and quality have been set by such places as Bryant Park, Campus Martius in Detroit and Sugar Beach in Toronto.

Rather than simply aim to “do no harm” in line with the 30+ year old “broken windows theory“, today’s best new and revitalized parks and public seating is salutogenic (v. pathogenic).

Sharon VanderKaay

How rough edges inspire innovation

August 15, 2015

Fifteen years ago what is now the most fascinating creative place in Amsterdam was at risk of becoming a boring, generic development. Today it is Europe’s largest broedplaats (breeding ground) for makers, inventors and artisans. NSDM is an enormous shipyard with a second life at the heart of an emerging economy.


NDSM werf in Amsterdam Noord

The booming era of shipbuilding at NDSM can be compared to the glory days of car building at the Packard Plant in Detroit. Workers in both cities endured hard lives in the factories, but their jobs gave them some sense of security, purpose and belonging. While their industries were thriving, they were proud to be part of a bigger identity that gained worldwide respect. Now that purpose-driven work is long gone.

Our need today is for new jobs that are meaningful and sustainable; in other words, the future is about making and doing things of enduring value rather than a life of empty consumption.

In particular, what can developers and friends of Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant, Packard and other emotionally-charged industrial sites learn from the nature of work at NDSM? And how can my hometown of Detroit reflect its roots as a place for inventors?

In many ways NDSM shows us new, healthier ways of working in an innovation-friendly setting. This rough-edged creative habitat is the antidote to disturbing stories about “a world without work” and armies of job-replacing robots. The NDSM raises and responds to several pressing questions:

  • What is real job security today?
  • What is the best work setting to spark innovation?
  • How can we aim for more than merely a sustainable environment?

It’s unlikely that these answers will ever be found here:


Could be Anywhere


The polished, anonymous “office park” developments of the post-industrial era were known for killing any sense of identity while draining the creative energy out of its hapless victims. The resulting recipe for alienation, conformity, false illusion of predictability, and norm of complacency was not a recipe for innovation.

So how can a place help us thrive by creating new job opportunities, rather than to merely survive as consumers?

Below are five essential ingredients which draw on NDSM and the model pioneered in 1994 by Margie Zeidler at 401 Richmond St West in Toronto as well as other creative hubs such as Evergreen Brickworks.

401 Richmond_composite_crop

Life at 401 Richmond St. West and painting “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?”


1. ROUGH EDGES and RUST: When big new ideas are born, they are naturally messy, unpolished, imperfect and unfinished. Rough edges encourage thinking about possibilities. Polished places are hostile habitats for unconventional approaches.

_NDSM_c NDSM (23) _NDSM 3

NDSM werf



Evergreen Brick Works



Hearn Generating Station, Toronto during Luminato


2. ROOTS: Humans have an innate need to be part of something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Tangible historical connections have an effect on our mental health–they are not simply about being sentimental. Shiny office parks are depressing in part because they are rootless.

IMG_0910 NDSM 6

LEFT: Detroit Design Center  RIGHT: NDSM werf


Granville Island_composite_market

Granville Island, Vancouver, BC


3. IDENTITY: The NDSM not only has its own special character, it encourages 230 creatives to express their individual identity. The design of each studio has a different personality, yet the whole effect is pulled together by strong structural elements. These expressions spill over to enliven shared spaces (which would be forbidden in an office park).         

Netherlands Shipbuilding 1

NDSM_composite 2

NDSM werf


4. INTERACTION: The future of work and job security will be through human relationships and collaboration. The NDSM encourages idea development and fluid work arrangements by providing a variety of stimulating, changeable spaces that attract people with shared interests.  

worker diversity composite

LEFT: from the Diego Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Arts   RIGHT: A face in the hood by Tyree Guyton at the Heidelberg Project, Detroit.


NDSM_composite 3

NDSM werf


5. SHARED OWNERSHIP: Whether through a formal shared ownership agreement (example: NDSM) or a sense of ownership instilled by the owners (example: 401 Richmond W) it is essential that people feel they have a personal stake in something that is enduring.   


NDSM werf

Packard swan_sm_rightMy ideas for the Packard Plant combine respect for the past with the rough edges that feed a new generation of innovators. I believe that to be a truly healthy place, it must inspire people to build their identity around things they create, not around things they consume.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Lovable, not just sustainable

May 15, 2015


Recently I led a Jane’s Walk which looked at a wide range of settings in terms of how they make us feel and why.

My message was that our daily visual diet affects our state of mind. We can make better choices as individuals and as a society if we become better critics.

During my walk I mentioned that “building beloved places is a sustainability issue.” Up to 40% of solid waste in landfills comes from construction debris. If we aim to build places that are love-worthy, they will not be destined for demolition. A SAB Magazine article I co-wrote explores this idea in more detail.

Everyone has a different “Love List.” I’ve noted in the slides above some of my reasons for choosing these particular places.

What places do you love in your city?

Top Ten Places to Feed Your Psyche in Detroit

April 19, 2015

Drive Thru Art Gallery

April 19, 2015

Located in downtown Detroit, this 10-story gallery-garage displays the work of 26 international artists commissioned by Dan Gilbert, owner of Bedrock Real Estate, working with Library Street Collective.

“The Z” could have been just another utilitarian design in a city that needs new infrastructure. Instead the developer makes the most of this opportunity to reinforce Detroit’s image as an optimistic, intriguing and human place.


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