Citizen Green: Ryan Saunders’ practical urbanism

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

I’ve known Ryan Saunders since November 2012, when he organized the Release the Youth Music and Arts Festival in a parking lot off North Main Street in High Point.

He lived in Greensboro, but worked for his family’s electrical supply business in High Point at the time. He was, and still is, committed to making his hometown a vibrant community — a place where young people can try out new ideas and businesses, make art and music, and find each other in restaurants and bars.

Saunders is both the most entrepreneurial and collaborative person I know. There are a number of social entrepreneurs in High Point, believe it or not, including Steve Hollingsworth, who promotes cycling; Tammy McDowell in the arts; and Michael Hayworth, who is organizing TEDx High Point on July 12. In one way or another, I got to know them all through Saunders.

The idea behind Release the Youth, not unlike any street fair or gallery hop, was for one Sunday afternoon to transform a part of High Point not known for foot traffic into a destination. With a limited budget, Saunders booked a handful of bands, and recruited a couple artists from Charleston, SC to live-paint on site. McDowell and other artists sold paintings and photographs.

In less than two years since the time we met, Saunders has organized a staggering number of events with a dizzying array of focal points. When urban planner Andres Duany came to High Point in 2013, Saunders manifested one of his concepts by organizing a party complete with bands, food trucks and live painting in the Pit, a recessed parking deck near the Amtrak station. He has also organized a craft-beer festival at the Mendenhall Transportation Center and a festival to celebrate the Southside district in High Point.

The 26-year-old Saunders has experienced life outside of North Carolina, having lived in New York City and Charleston, SC. He’s picked up new ideas and insights into ecologies of commerce, talent and innovation.

Visiting San Francisco, he met up with a group of designers and architects who call themselves Rebar Collective, and one of their ideas in particular struck a chord with him. Park(lets), temporary installations in single parking spaces with benches constructed from found materials and potted flowers create a public space for interaction and relaxation in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

The provisional and improvisatory nature of the project appealed to him. They don’t require lengthy public-policy processes or funding. They demonstrate possibilities and start conversations.

The temporary nature of the enterprise — a hallmark of tactical urbanism — left a lasting impression. Meanwhile, efforts to revitalize High Point’s urban core through a series of charrettes and a master plan led by Duany haven’t been going so well. The process has been stymied by High Point City Council’s reluctance to invest public funds on catalytic projects, micromanaging and parochial competition for resources.

Saunders has scaled back his activities in High Point. All along he’s lived in downtown Greensboro, where he can take advantage of access to restaurants and bars, music and the arts, and a walkable urban environment — all the things he’s been advocating for High Point.

The family business in High Point was too much of a demand on his time, so now he supports his social-entrepreneurship efforts by working part-time on a farm in Saxapahaw and tending bar at Pig Pounder Brewery in Greensboro. He’s found that he has more outlets for his ideas in Greensboro, although paradoxically he believes the level of talent and opportunity for innovation is higher in High Point.

Last weekend, Saunders produced his first event in Greensboro, an educational and music showcase at Greene Street Club called Power to the People’s Transit.

The Kopecky Family Band and three other acts provided the draw for the event. Artists painted in the alley. Benches constructed from wooden doors with peeling paint propped on planters and hay bales populated a park(let) in front of the club. A banner equipped with Sharpies and posted at the entrance invited attendees to answer a questionnaire about their experiences with public transportation. Funds from the event went to Habitat for Humanity and a project to build bus shelters led by UNCG professor Spoma Jovanovic.

And, not least of all, the event raised awareness for the People’s Transit, a private transportation service scheduled to be launched in Greensboro on Friday. Public-policy decisions about public transit at both the local and regional levels are understandably driven by workforce development and educational needs. This project is geared towards a more social realm.

Through a contract with Royal Limo of Jamestown, a party bus will provide transport to and from downtown Greensboro all night for the price of a $10 wristband. The route will begin with a residential-to-restaurant phase, then take people from restaurants to bars, then from bar to bar, and finally from the bars back home. If the initial phase is successful, Saunders hopes to upgrade to a school bus and reduce the price to $5.

The project is designed to meet an unmet need to get people home safely from bars, something people in larger cities with more developed public-transportation systems take for granted. Saunders also hopes to combat the stigma attached to public transportation as being the option of last resort for poor people, which results a vicious cycle of dependency on taxpayer funding because there are fewer people to pay fares.

It’s a kind of lean urbanism, custom made for an era with tight constraints on public spending.

“What I’m trying to do with this bus project is directly attributable to what I did in High Point,” Saunders told me. “I wanted to think I could present these ideas to the city, and they would immediately be amenable to them. The thing that is hard to accept when you have these ideas and goals for things like buses is that there’s a large population that doesn’t have the luxury to think about that. They think about surviving on a day-to-day basis. They think about, How am I going to get my next meal?

“They have to offer public transportation for these people who need it,” he continued. “But they’re losing money and having to cut services, and it doesn’t make sense to increase your ridership. That’s a hard sell for them: While you’re cutting routes for people who need them, you’re going to add routes for college kids so they can go to bars? So I think we need to set the example on the private side. I wanted to start it as a private project rather than petition the city for funds.”