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by Alexandra J Tohme and François Alexandre

With rapid growth happening in the urban cores of Jacksonville and Miami, local leaders highlight the need to bridge culture, arts, community knowledge and economic opportunities — for better outcomes for all, cultural celebration & thriving cities.

On Saturday, November 18, Future of Cities (FOC) in partnership with Stratosferica, held the first US edition of the city-making summit, Utopian Hours — hosted at our Climate + Innovation Hub. The “city-making festival” was dedicated to dynamic discussions and engaging debates on urban development, and strategies for cities and the built environment — gathering developers, placemakers, city officials, researchers and architects and more, from the United States, Italy and around the world.

Multiple panels were presented, ranging from the “feminist city” with urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, to placemaking and citizen making in Turin Italy, to “maximizing public space’s potential in New York City” with Ya-Ting Liu, to National Geographic Explorer Alize Carrere’s “introduction to climatopias.” 

FOC held the Regenerative Placemaking Panel, moderated by Alexandra J Tohme —which zoomed in on local approaches to community uplifting development, challenges from brain drain to displacement and economic exclusion, and presented strategies for equitable growth. The speakers bridged global perspectives from Haiti to the Arab World to South Florida. 

Panelists: François Alexandre, Founder & Director of Tapari1804; Emily Moody, Director of Community Engagement, Phoenix Jacksonville Arts + Innovation District (PHX-JAX); Tanya Watts Director of Neighborhood Affairs PHX-JAX moderated by Alexandra J Tohme Director of Regenerative Placemaking FOC.

From left to right: François Alexandre, TAPARI 1804, Alexandra Tohme (FOC), Ya-Ting Liu (Chief Public Realm Officer, NYC), Tony Cho (FOC), Tanya Watts (PHX-JAX & FOC), Suzanne Picket (Eastside CDC) and Emily Moody (PHX-JAX FOC) Photo: VACO Studio

Overall, the community leaders stressed the importance of preserving the dignity of communities undergoing change: “the most important ingredient, to all our efforts is: dignity” said Alexandra. Dignity for the development of the project and its lasting impact, and for all those involved and at stake. This involves uplifting community members with decent services and decent housing. Projects should not jeopardize urban living and livelihood for local residents, but rather should provide, in the words of François Alexandre: “A hand-up, not a hand-out.”

Alexandra spoke to her experiences listening to local communities facing extreme hardship when she worked in refugee camps, and the humility required in this approach — as some of the brightest ideas and most innovative strategies are found within the community members and youth themselves. This extends to the local experiences of our Florida based panelists — with the community leadership of François Alexandre, representing Little Haiti, Miami and Tanya Watts and Emily Moody representing Jacksonville’s neighborhoods of North Springfield and the Eastside.

The Regenerative Placemaking Panel during Utopian Hours
Zulu Painter completing his final piece during the 48 Hour Mural Festival in Jacksonville, FL with PHX-JAX Arts + Innovation District

Emily Moody, third generation Jacksonville resident and Director of Community Engagement with PHX-JAX, has been a cultural pioneer and supporting the arts movement to gain traction and momentum by working with local artists, including through activations such as mural festivals and creating outdoor art galleries. Emily also highlighted the need for rent control of art studios to prevent the displacement of artists as property values rise — a point to which Alexandra emphasized that the attraction of new residents and visitors to Jacksonville should be coupled with supporting the existing arts scenes to flourish during this growth.

Among other initiatives by the PHX-JAX District, Tanya Watts discussed how property trainings and tax assistance help residents remain in their neighborhoods amid development.

Tanya Watts speaking on the Regenerative Placemaking Panel

Tanya Watts, Director of Neighborhood Affairs for PHX-JAX, echoed a sentiment raised by François Alexandre on the importance of the culture and the community of the neighborhood, “to make sure they are bridged together and not overlooked — partnering with existing community leaders doing important work, such as Suzanne Pickett of the Historic Eastside CDC — one of oldest historic black neighborhoods in Jacksonville, FL.” 

Tanya highlighted many important points including the need to be cognizant of which communities are affected by projects, and how to make sure growth is happening “not to the community, but with the community,’ a point emphasized by François in describing the needed shift in perspective to uplifting communities instead of imposing changes upon them.

We look forward to ensuring that our programming can then take off to build our arts & culture, youth job creation & food security and community initiatives. 

“Friends of Phoenix is a new non-profit we have launched,” announced Emily, and one of the pillars to support the mission is “to keep artists in the neighborhood, keep them working and hopefully provide a livable wage to support the flourishment of the neighborhood, and wider city of Jacksonville.”

FOC’s new nonprofit endeavors in Little Haiti and Jacksonville are currently raising funds to support the programming that these community leaders have developed thoughtfully and after deep engagements, consultations, and shared activations in the neighborhoods with local residents, artists, entrepreneurs, and youth.

The Phoenix Arts + Innovation District sponsored a neighborhood camp program in the summer of 2023. The team provided lunches and activities for youth once a week and also served as a water stop on their neighborhood wellness walks.
Outdoor art murals bring color and vibrancy to Jacksonville’s streets

François Alexandre drew attention to the 50th anniversary of the boat people’s migration from Haiti, and that the community takes pride in commemorating its resilience in its historical journey. François expressed his commitment to fostering positive change, understanding the needs of the community, and bridging gaps between various sectors.

Born in Haiti and raised in South Florida, he shared insights into the transformation witnessed in Little Haiti, Miami. The time has never been more crucial than now for co-creation of projects with and by people and groups within the neighborhood. He envisions a collective effort to create a future that caters to the well-being of everyone involved.

François gave a shout out to another speaker and legendary place-maker, systems thinker and practitioner, Scott Francisco, who spoke later that day on his own panel (check out our interview piece with him here about tropical timber harvesting.) What Scott is doing, François emphasized, is a tangible example of the efforts needed: 

“He is putting value into communities, indigenous and local family livelihoods, and then that values goes back into the market.

If we could do that in every area, in every neighborhood, then its not just putting value into a coin and turning it into a dollar, but putting value into people, into local businesses, and transforming that into equitable and sustainable lasting economic growth, growth that has resiliency built in and can better withstand shocks, because it puts people, residents and communities at the core.”

Events such as Utopian Hours are important, as François emphasized that gatherings such as this summit bring together “thinkers that envision and work towards what the future looks like for all of us, not just the haves or have-nots, but for all people to move forward. What does it look like collectively, to regenerate a society that we are all part of and cares for all of us?”


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Future Of Cities Medium Blog. Learn more about the Tapari + Future of Cities Collaboration Project on youth empowerment, storytelling and Haitian culture.

To see the photo album from the Utopian Hours City-Making event, see the VACO Studio album here!
One of the initiatives TAPARI implements is a monthly food distribution to support 200–300 families in the most economically underserved neighborhoods of Miami
Tanya Watts, Director of Neighborhood Affairs, Photo: VACO Studio
Regenerative Placemaking Panel at Utopian Hours: From Left to right: Alexandra J Tohme Director of Regenerative Placemaking FOC; François Alexandre, Founder & Director of Tapari1804; Emily Moody, Director of Community Engagement PHX-JAX; Tanya Watts Director of Neighborhood Affairs PHX-JAX; Tony Cho FOC. Photo: VACO Studio
François Alexandre — Haitian-American social entrepreneur and international & community leader in South Florida with a focus on the black diaspora, rooted in his mission of “bridging community to better government.” He is founder of Konscious Kontractors, KLOTA (meaning “Conscious Leaders of Little Haiti”), & TAPARI non-profit working to empower and transform youth & scholars into future trailblazers and leaders of their community.
Jacksonville Arts & Music School (JAMS) students celebrating art and community — one of the community youth groups Emily engages with when developing and implementing the arts initiatives for PHX-JAX.
Alexandra J Tohme volunteering to support “Hoops4Unity” event which brings together foster children, adopted youth and children of law enforcement and the military together for physical and mental health programs. 
The PHX-JAX Team in front of one of the murals after the 48-Hour Mural Festival
From Left to Right: Suzanne Pickett (HECDC), François Alexandre (Tapari1804 and KLOTA), Reginald Charles (Tapari1804), Stervens Pauleus (Tapari1804)and Tanya Watts (PHX-JAX)

by Alexandra J Tohme

Why do we need a new approach to development? For many reasons, but a most apparent one is that taking a silo-approach dismisses the cross-sectoral nature of all policy domains — every effort aimed at one domain will affect another, intentionally or unintentionally. Secondly, because development needs to be done for, with — and by — the communities that they intend to serve, or even just operate in.

Regenerative placemaking is an innovative approach that takes into account policy interconnectedness, and focuses locally. Regenerative placemaking’s goal is to revitalize neighborhoods and natural ecosystems through active community engagement.

A Community Engagement Gathering at the Phoenix Arts + Innovation District — asks neighbors and residents what their aspirations are for the future of their city. What do they want, and don’t want.

In Jacksonville, Florida, the local FOC team is working hard on our ambitious project, the Phoenix Arts + Innovation District (PHXJAX) initiative to bring regenerative placemaking to life. Through community involvement and collaboration, PHXJAX is transforming underutilized spaces into vibrant, inclusive, supportive and regenerative places — places intended for empowerment and co-creation to happen.

Local community outreach, conversations and engagement are the first steps in regenerative placemaking. From initial conversations to understand challenges and dreams, regenerative placemaking projects must include speaking with residents, local businesses, families, artists, educators, organizations and more; and where relevant, involve them in the planning, design, and implementation of projects.

To take it one level further, it is ideal that those managers and project leaders are from the community itself — and for us, that’s the case. Our team leaders at PHXJAX are long-time residents and their family generations before them as well. No one understands the community better than those born and raised there. And especially those actively dedicated to see it thrive.

All projects — from energy and water to transport, housing, education or real estate — must engage the community before, during and after implementation.

There is only everything to gain by doing so. Local communities bear the greatest wealth of knowledge, resources, networks and assets that are needed in order to implement with success, and understand the risks that could upset any effort. No outside (or internal) developer or planner can achieve goals without this consultation and participation of local leaders and families, entrepreneurs and youth. In fact, the project risks failure if those views, needs, understandings and perspectives, are not taken into account.

Activating Public Space

PHXJAX, a notable example of regenerative placemaking, has transformed vacant lots and neglected areas in Jacksonville into vibrant community spaces. Through a series of collaborative efforts involving residents, artists, urban planners, and local government, PHXJAX is working to revitalize neighborhoods by creating gathering places — ones that enable conversations around the needs and desires of the community. From enhancing the physical environment to strengthening relationships, this approach direct everyone’s focus and attention together, to improve overall quality of life in the city’s districts. The interconnected nature of development and policies becomes apparent, and so do the solutions.

Re-using existing buildings for community spaces (or other positive urban efforts) is the example we are setting in Jacksonville and at our FOC headquarters Hub in Miami. Rather than building something new, which would involve digging in soil or rivers and disrupting the natural ecosystems once again — why not refurbish and renovate an old warehouse?

By integrating environmentally friendly practices into the design and operations of these community spaces, PHXJAX has become a model for regenerative development. Our teams involve neighbors and families in child-friendly events that encourage education on important issues for environmental and public health. For example, our PHX plant swap brings gardening expertise and families together to share in community experiences.

Monthly artist meetups and networking events held at the PHXJAX are free to the community and bring together artists, creators and art enthusiasts in a supportive dynamic environment. It offers a platform for collaboration, business growth and forges meaningful connections for artists and entrepreneurs. This thriving network of talent is constantly evolving and growing and we look forward to watching it reach new heights and promote economic growth for the artist community in Jacksonville.

Stay tuned to hear about the latest updates in the regenerative design of PHXJAX, and ongoing exciting events and regenerative placemaking activations happening in this up-and-coming city.

Mural artwork is very popular among the local artists in Jacksonville, the PHXJAX program includes monthly artist meet ups as well as street mural paintings on the premises.
Community Engagement is the first and, most important methodology step in regenerative placemaking. For any development project to be successful or impactful — conversations with the community must be had. Find out the dreams and opportunities within any neighborhood.