When The Urban Conga won the bid to create an outdoor art installation for a new community recreation center in St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres neighborhood, the design firm knew the issues they wanted to address -- climate change and sea level rise.
“Shore Acres is one of the worst areas in St. Petersburg for flooding. We thought it was vital to focus on climate change and its impact on communities,” says Ryan Swanson, founder of The Urban Conga.
Using art to make a public statement is certainly not a new concept. But the challenge for The Urban Conga was how to engage the public on a topic that can be intimidating and even controversial.
“When you think of climate change and its potential impact on our lives, people tend to get scared, uncomfortable or even overwhelmed,” says Swanson.
For The Urban Conga, the solution was obvious. All of their projects include interactive play as a tool to break down barriers, invite discussion and encourage exploration and learning.
“Play is a big part of our work,” explains Swanson, who has even written “A Guide For Creating a Playable City,” helping cities look for opportunities to incorporate play for all ages and demographics into existing spaces, from a park bench or crosswalk to public square.
A graduate of the University of South Florida with a degree in architecture, Swanson feels strongly that engaging adults in play can change communities for the better and help revitalize underused spaces. He’s passionate about the idea of introducing play to foster social connection and create more inclusive equitable spaces.
“As we get older we tend to forget how to play or consider it only as a reward that should happen in a certain space and time,” he says. “We start thinking of play as a negative thing. That we should be working or doing something more productive.”
It’s time to change our perspective on play, he says.
“In moments of play you break free from pre-conceived mindsets and become more open to conversation and engagement with the people around you,” says Swanson. That’s the powerful thing about play – it starts to create relationships in a unique way.”
TIDAL, the sculpture that The Urban Conga created for the entrance to the new Shore Acres Rec Center, embraces this idea by presenting sobering information about climate change in a visually appealing way that is also interactive.
The key designers on the project, Swanson and Maeghann Coleman, both grew up in Florida, well aware of the risk of sea level on the state. To create the installation, the two combined data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a series of rectangular structures to resemble pillars of a pier.
The entire installation stretches about 30 feet wide with the tallest pillars reaching nine feet in height, the highest predicted sea level rise that could impact Shore Acres by 2100, according to NOAA data.
The lowest pillars stand at two feet representing the lowest potential trajectory if action is taken now to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
“I grew up on the water and liked to watch the tide,” explains Swanson. “The pillars are at varying heights to resemble an undulating form, which represents tidal patterns of the area.”
During the day, the pillars change color depending on the way the light hits them. People can also see a reflection of themselves in each pillar, part of the playful aspect of the installation.
At night each pillar lights up individually as someone walks by, revealing NOAA-derived data points based on local tide patterns.
The installation is designed as “passive play,” says Swanson. “Because it is a community rec center, people will be traveling in and out of the space, and as they do, they pass by the sculpture, giving them the chance to experience a moment of play about a serious topic. The goal is to spark a conversation about a more resilient future.”
The installation is made of recyclable polycarbonate and aluminum and was manufactured locally at The Urban Conga’s fabrication plant in St. Petersburg. The company’s main headquarters is in Brooklyn, NY.
For more information go to The Urban Conga