From Public Workshop’s Project Archives:
Project: An Outdoor Classroom & Community Space For PS 134
Location:New York, NY
Project Director: Alex Gilliam with help from Thor Snilsberg from Project For Public Spaces for the Hester Street Collaborative
Is it possible for children to make meaningful contributions in design processes beyond doing crayon doodles or filling out questionnaires?
‘I want this space to be wonderful so it will not only inspire my classmates to do better…..to work harder and take better care of the school but it should inspire the neighborhood to do better too.’
Believe it or not this quote was spoken (unprompted) by a third grader from PS 134, an elementary school in New York City, during one in a series of multi-generational design exercises that I had crafted to create a new outdoor classroom and community space for the school, and neighborhood. She not only stunned me, she left everyone there gobsmacked; the students, designers, teachers, curriculum advisors, administrators and experts from the Audobon Society that I had assembled to re-imagine an under-loved plot of land on the property of the school. It should be noted that this inspiring young lady went to a largely underperforming school in a largely underperforming neighborhood.
I mention this because it fundamentally asserts the value of creating structures, systems and processes where people of many ages, skills and interests can work together to re-imagine possibilities. Many planning processes and charettes have started to provide activities for children but in a vast majority of the cases this is simply baby-sitting in sheep’s clothing, and in doing this they miss the most fundamental of opportunities. Our third grader’s comment is a reminder that making children a part of rethinking the places we live, work, play and learn is not just something we should do because of the traditional notions of future ownership and responsibility. Making youth central, integral parts of our planning and design processes can be essential for not only germinating the very best ideas but entirely re-casting an entire design process, challenging everyone to do better.
Fundamental to this notion are the ideas that good design; ownership and empowerment; innovation; and having fun are not mutually exclusive. And that ‘with’ is better than ‘for’.
Is it as simple as integrating children into a planning process? Heck no.
The success of the project hinged on fundamentally rethinking how we imagine, create and build.
A perfect example of this is the garden’s branding pictured above and below.
The original idea was generated by a fourth grader working with an urban planner at the design charette. The basic concept was further developed by me and my seventeen year old employees who were part of the Citizen Designer Workshop that I designed and created for the Hester Street Collaborative. The graphic concept merged ideas about creating self-sustaining, user-driven branding that I had developed with the Sunshine School (here)- in this case the design was crafted by tearing masking tape because drawing skills at PS 134 are limited- with the really smart experiments of an eighteen year old employee. After we played around with how it might be deployed and used to build excitement and capacity, a sixteen year old employee working with two fourteen year old employees took the original and marginally offensive version, (Eat Me!) and designed a complete set for the school. The designs were ultimately used on signage, posters and on t-shirts that the school used to raise money, build awareness and more than a hint of excitement.