• Insights

Co-Designing a Place-Based Strategy for Mermaid Avenue Corridor in Coney Island

Research and strategy to advance Coney Island’s local economic development goals

In April 2018, 3×3 teamed up with the Alliance for Coney Island, a nonprofit organization representing the local business community of the area, to develop a neighborhood communication strategy for Mermaid Avenue. In light of the rapid transformation of Coney Island, the project set out to provide an opportunity for local stakeholders to participate in the redevelopment of their own neighborhood. Using a collective placemaking approach, the process brought together local businesses, property owners and residents to align on a shared vision and co-design a place-based strategy to activate the corridor. More specifically, the strategy and identity intends to advance the area’s local economic development goals by identifying opportunities to activate the corridor, highlighting the area’s diverse community, engaging a broad customer base, and driving foot traffic to local businesses.

Placemaking uses elements of the visual branding, environmental design, and place-based programming to create enjoyable environments that promote inclusion, well-being, and a sense of belonging. If done collectively, placemaking can expand the limited say of community members in traditional planning. Typically, formal community visioning processes are stretched over long project timelines and bound to clearly defined project parameters. This makes it hard for residents to provide meaningful input, and as a result, to see changes that truly matter to them and improve local conditions. 3×3 sees collective placemaking as a way to respond to these common planning pitfalls by transferring ownership of the design and decision-making process to those most affected by planning issues.

The Need for a Collective Vision For Mermaid Avenue’s Future
Mermaid Avenue has played a crucial role in Coney Island’s rich history, providing a corridor for locals to operate businesses, work, run daily errands, and socialize. A thriving commercial corridor during Coney Island’s heyday in the 1920s and 30s, it fell into disrepair in the decades following. Local businesses struggled to survive the lack of public and private investment that followed the area’s redlining. By the 1960s, many of the storefronts that had once populated the corridor sat vacant, leading the City to bulldoze much of the area under a large-scale urban renewal plan and interspersing the once continuous strip with residential buildings (check out the Coney Island History Project to learn more about the local history). More recently, the pendulum has seemed to swing back again. While still recovering from the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the City and private developers alike are investing in ambitious developments (read about the City’s extensive redevelopments plans here). Among the developments is Ocean Dreams, a mixed-use glass tower that will bring over 400 luxury apartments and over 20,500 square feet of high-end commercial space to the neighborhood.

Coney Island is back on the map. But how will this regained interest impact the existing community of businesses and lower-income residents that have weathered through decades of disinvestment? Funded by a Governor’s Office for Storm Recovery grant, our project set out to leverage recent investments to strengthen the communities’ capacity to stay put and benefit from the changes to come.

How a Human-Centered and Participatory Design Process Helped to Overcome Challenges

Disillusioned by decades of neglect and unkept promises by the City, we found many residents and business owners had difficulties imagining that positive change was possible. Moreover, some stakeholders were not experienced in formulating a vision for their community and had no prior exposure to design language and place-based branding. To provide the space for meaningful engagement, we provided tools for stakeholders to envision a different future without being prescriptive or limiting the possible direction. An agile approach that kept the end-users–local businesses, property owners and residents–at the heart of the process provided the framework to overcome these challenges.

Getting Started – Assessing the Landscape  

We kicked off the project with a discovery phase to better understand the local landscape and the aspirations of residents and the business community. We talked to stakeholders, canvassed passersby on the street, and conducted a survey to learn both what community members value about Mermaid Avenue and what they want to see changed. It soon became clear that few feel proud of Mermaid Avenue. Asked to rate the attractiveness of the street from 1 (not attractive) to 5 (very attractive), participants on average responded with a 2. Reasons that were mentioned as explanations ranged from run-down physical conditions, storefront vacancy, issues of maintenance and upkeep, and limited opportunities to gather and socialize. While the built environment was a source of much frustration, we also heard that residents are proud of the diverse and welcoming community, and the area’s rich history. When asked about what makes them proud of Coney Island, one resident mentioned, “as you walk down you get to see the diverse community members.” Another community member responded, “the history! There used to be flower shops, diners, supermarkets, bridal shower, expensive men’s clothing, and easy access for buses.” These social and historical assets were validated in later design phases and became the central anchor for Mermaid Avenue’s new identity.

Using Storytelling and Visual Prompts 

After assessing the landscape, we shared our findings with members of the community and conducted the first workshop to move from what is to what could be. We started with a storytelling exercise that asked residents to collectively reflect on community assets and how they relate to the built environment. The activity functioned as an icebreaker and set a positive tone for the workshop. One resident shared, “We’re a diverse community. You don’t come here and say ‘there’s no one like me here.’ Here, we have everybody.”

Taking the positive energy and the assets that were generated through the storytelling exercise, we went on to map aspirations for Mermaid Avenue’s future. We facilitated this conversation through a set of image cards and visual prompts that helped residents to start forming a vision. While there was no singular vision that came out of this workshop, we were able to pinpoint overlapping themes together. Residents wanted a bright and inviting environment that reflected the strength and diversity of their community.

Community members sharing their vision for the Mermaid Avenue corridor, using visual prompts and a worksheet to facilitate the conversation Source: 3×3 Design

Workshops – Providing Space for Collective Action 

3×3 synthesized insights gathered from the first workshop and the discovery phase with the Alliance for Coney Island, and developed five visual concepts for Mermaid Avenue’s new place-based identity. In the following months, through five additional hands-on workshops, we vetted and iterated designs with community members, eventually boiling down the ideas to one concept. The community workshops not only enabled residents and businesses to directly shape the identity of their corridor, they were also a space to collectivize issues that many small business owners had been coping with individually. Together, we developed a range of activation ideas that would best respond to local issues.

The outcome of a community review of brand concepts Source: 3×3 Design

Leveraging the Role of Community Heroes 

Through this process, we saw the importance of local community heroes, like Jimmy Prince. Also known as ‘The Prince of Mermaid Avenue,’ Jimmy had been working and running Major Meats since 1949, weathering through all the years that Coney Island had been written off by planning officials and private capital. Today, after his retirement, Jimmy still deeply cares about his community and was excited to contribute to the revival of his beloved street. During one of the meetings, Jimmy shared how he would put a bench in front of his store and keep on the lights during the night so people felt safe and had a place to socialize. His excitement and commitment was contagious. Stories like these showed how small acts of care and stewardship can make a difference in a community. It motivated other participants to follow suit and collectively create a vision for a brighter future.

Jimmy Prince and fellow community members reviewing artifacts of Mermaid Avenue’s identity in the making Source: 3×3 Design

Delivery & Activations

Through the six month process, we developed and delivered a brand playbook including templates for street banners, strategies to activate vacant storefronts and the streetscape along the corridor, as well as other types of business and resident communications. The playbook included templates and instructions on how residents and business owners can take and adapt the tools to use in the way they are comfortable with support from the Alliance for Coney Island.

A selection of touchpoints and collateral of Mermaid Avenue’s new identity Source: 3×3 Design

The banners, maps, newsletter, activations, tote-bags, stickers, and other business supporting materials are all activating the Mermaid Ave commercial corridor and helping to promote the Alliance for Coney Island’s ongoing community and economic development initiatives in the area.

The Alliance for Coney Island is a nonprofit organization representing the local business community of the area and has since its formation in 2012 worked to develop the area into a thriving and liveable neighborhood.

Jakob Winkler

 is a New York transplant from Vienna, Austria, brings his expertise in civic engagement, urban development, and digital equity as 3×3’s Program Strategist.