Client Coopers Ferry Partnership
Location Camden, NJ
This summer, Coopers Ferry Partnership hired us to work with local youth and community members to create a series of pop-up places for skating, play and building in Camden, NJ. The project has been a great success and we are excited to work with Coopers Ferry, the Camden Building Heroes and community members to much more in 2015. Here’s a little bit about what happened.
WHEN ARE YOU COMING OVER? WE NEED TO FIX THE RAMP.
In late August at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, I got a call from Will, one of the young adults from Camden who had helped build the first portion of the pop-up skate park and playground. The region had gotten heavy rain the night before and had caused some bubbling on the plywood we used for the temporary mini-ramp. Up until this point, it Will, Tiffany, Joseph, Bubbie, Nelson, Devin, Turtle and others clearly enjoyed helping design and build out the space, but Will’s early morning call revealed that a much deeper sense of ownership had set-in amongst the stakeholders than we had initially understood. As I came to learn that morning, Will and other team members were going to the site each day to pick up trash; conduct informal design research, interviewing users that were visiting the site from throughout the region; they had numerous suggestions for improving the condition and maintenance of the site; had started to identify other sites in the neighborhood and talked to some community leaders about other skating improvements; reached out to neighbors about their perceptions of the space and skaters; and were sometimes skating at the site until 1:00 am in the morning.
Since then, this core team of Camden Building Heroes has helped lead weekly DIY play/skate building events; leveraged their own networks to get more community members involved; and have even regularly made the significant trek to our maker-space–The Dept. of Making + Doing–in Philadelphia to hone their fabrication, design and leadership skills.
Ultimately, while it is important to continue to expand the breadth of the stakeholders for the space, the Camden Building Heroes have made it possible to meaningfully engage hundreds of different people in the building process from Camden and beyond.
WHAT MADE THIS PROJECT ‘WORK’?
This is of course is a situation that we all aim for and dream of. How did it happen? On numerous occasions around the United States, I have seen similar things happen when we have deployed our highly visible, youth-led participatory design-build process but a number of noteworthy things have helped make this truly special.
1. A number of the team members live three blocks away in the Northgate public housing towers that have been nicknamed ‘Iraq’, for their disfunction. Will can actually see the skatepark from his balcony every morning when he wakes up. He can point it out to his uncle and other community members.
2. The highly visible location of the site, with multiple views and perspectives from the street and Bridge was transformative. Construction on the PATCO commuter rails and generally on the Ben Franklin Bridge at first seemed like a hinderance. Instead, it gave us a different, built-in audience–the construction workers- -that helped expand awareness of the project. On numerous occasions we found that PATCO workers or riders had texted or Instagramed pictures of the project to their friends, who then showed up to check the project out.
3. We tapped into and simply supercharged the skills and desires that already existed. We do this on every project that we work on but in this case there was a potent mix of real desires and skills that already existed. Tiffany, age 17, has been taking drafting classes in Camden public schools and has a deep interest in design. Devin, age 22, although not particularly precise, has been helping with DIY skateparks for years. Will, age 23, had already done some work as a handyman in Newark and Camden. Turtle, age 7, has grown up seeing and occasionally helping family members build.
4. There is a deep latent desire amongst Camden’s youth to make improvements to their the City and actually build its future. The fundamental condition of a teenager is to want to be able to have control over and positively impact the world around them. This is true everywhere we work. What is the difference in Camden? I am not sure whether it is because we are primarily working with skateboarders (who have an engrained ‘opportunity seeking’ ethos) or that the conditions in Camden are particularly bleak but most of the Camden Building Heroes already have fairly developed ideas about improvements they would like to make to vacant lots in Camden better. They simply have lacked the tools and support to take action.
5. The project isn’t just about skateboarding, design, play, youth or community building–the project couldn’t be easily pigeonholed into one of these categories and this considerably expanded its reach and appeal. Design played a big role in expanding the impact of the project. Through the thoughtful use of color and such elements as the waavy roll out, the mini-ramp doesn’t look like anything that typically gets built in the skateboarding community. Not only did this create a buzz in the skating community but it also raised the curiousity of everyone passing or working nearby. Word of the space quickly spread through texts, social media and word of mouth.
SAY HELLO TO TIFFANY.
The project has demonstrated the huge potential of Camden youth leading the designing and building ‘play’ to bring people together from throughout the region to understand and ‘build’ the City in new ways. It has revealed both deep latent interest for this type of work and a strong baseline of skills and desire for action that could lead to truly wonderful and unique things happening in Camden. Continuing to broaden the audience and integrate such projects within existing systems to ensure the work has maximal impact and doesn’t suffer from the ebbing and floof funding are important.
In many respects, one of our key Camden Building Heroes–Tiffany, age 17–represents the true potential of the project. Living nearby in Northgate towers, she is a passionate skater, a devout leader of her church youth group and takes drafting/architecture classes in the Camden public school system. Driven, passionate and a natural leader–like the project itself–she transcends any readily identifiable categorizations. Without suggestion, she has worked hard within her school to set up an internship so that she and a fellow classmate can come to work with Public Workshop once a week during school time.
This has been fantastic as it has allowed her to start to work and connect with some of our most driven Philadelphia Building Heroes. With her drafting experience, she is more fluid with our digital fabrication tools than many existing members of our team. That being said, she and Nelson are also developing new skills and being challenged in new ways that will enable them to do more in Camden.
But what if we are able to leverage Tiffany, Will, Nelson, Devin and others back into their architecture classes to start to tap into this ‘infrastructure of skills’ to re-imagine more vacant lots in Camden? What if every vacant lot was seen as an opportunity not only for youth to take the lead in improving their City but also an chance to strengthen learning in Camden schools?
I think that Tiffany, Will, Nelson, Devin, Joseph and the City’s other young adults are essential to making Camden invincible once again, we just need to provide more opportunities for them to do so.