Want A Sneak Peek Into Our R + D Lab For Civic Design Participation & Learning??

Posted on February 24th, 2012 at 4:34 pm by in Our Work

Want A Sneak Peek Into Our R + D Lab For Civic Design Participation & Learning??

Walking into a community planning meeting for the pocket park around the corner from your house, you are a bit surprised when asked to fill out and wear a wooden name tag. However, it is a mighty attractive looking name tag and it feels a bit more special than the usual sticky affairs–that never really stick anyway.

Your picture–along with every other participant–is taken with the tag on because, well, YOU are Benson Park. The Park, like many public spaces has a large group of users but the stakeholders that typically show up for the meetings only represents a small portion of this users. From what you’ve heard, the hows that the meeting attending stakeholders desires for the Park don’t entirely align with those of the larger group of users. To ensure the long-term health of the Park and create the most appropriate designs for the LARGER group of users, it is important to celebrate these other users and even expand the stakeholder group.

Halfway through the event, you and every other participant are asked to take a seat around a big table, flip over your name tag and have a look at the back. Whoa! Much to your surprise you find what looks like an overhead view of the Park etched into the back of your name tag. You smile and notice that across the table, your neighbor Leanne is smiling too. Spread out around you are pieces of wood, glue, paint, a bunch of other miscellaneous materials and what look like miniature felt lollipops. When asked to use the materials before you to build Benson Park on the back of your name tag, you quickly realize that, wait, those lollipops are actually trees. Starting to play with the supplies in the other bowls it becomes clear that the small wooden blocks are buildings and the miniature circles represent the fountain that everyone loves so much has yet to be repaired from when thieves stole its pipes, over seven years ago. Looking around, you notice that Joanne, like you, is similarly struggling to figure out where her house is located. The two of you start talking and notice that across the table, Harold is not at all struggling and has in fact figured out where he lives. Well this makes everything loads easier because you live next to Harold and Joanne lives three doors down from you. What is the name of the new person who lives in between you and why isn’t she here? Did we forget to ask her? Bill mentions that he called her but the number didn’t work. ‘Well that’s because she left her phone in a cab. Here’s her new number,’ mentions Joanne. Ryan, the group facilitator, asks everyone to paint their house–only their house–on their name tags.

As gorgeous as they may be, the trees are small and a bit tough to glue, and everyone is struggling a hair with attaching the trees to the model. Some are on the verge of throwing up their arms until Natania gets her trees arranged and glued perfectly. All of a sudden her name tag really does look like the Park and every stops working to admire what she’s done. Ryan holds up Natania’s tag and shows everyone how it can become a Christmas tree ornament, which is right around the corner.The jolt of electricity this sends through the room is palpable and everyone redoubles their efforts. Some, given the size of their hands or their age, struggle more than most but you notice that Ryan’s seating plan for the group–young-old-young-old–has encouraged a few young adults like Yesenia to lend a hand to the older participants on either side of them. This is a rare sight because there is a significant age divide in the community and much of the conflict around the future design of the Park hinges on the age-related activities that should be accommodated.

As people wrap up their micro-Parks, Ryan pulls them aside and takes a picture of them with their creation. They point proudly at their homes and tags. Some people have even used the baby blue felt to show the fountain working again. Usually, a photographer has to ask people to smile when they pose but it is striking that in this setting, a community planning meeting, no coercion or arm twisting is necessary.

At Public Workshop we are always tinkering away, developing new tools and methods for uniquely engaging citizens–young and old–in the design of the places they live. We having found that ‘making’ and ‘doing’ are transformative approaches for creating more meaningful participation/ learning, generating better ideas, fostering collaboration and building greater ownership around the design of a public space or a learning process. Our Place Tags are a very specific tool intended for a very specific point in a particularly unique community design process. They are not supposed to generate creativity in their own right. Instead they are about building connections, identity, conversation and have people start to ‘locate’ themselves in a place, and process. We have other making-oriented tools for generating ideas, exploring design possibilities, establishing priorities, etc. that we would deploy later around a place like Benson Park. Although they are still largely in the prototype phase (we are working on transforming them and their accompanying tools into a larger kit), we love the elegant simplicity of the function, interaction, and outcome of the Place Tags.

Thanks to always awesome Ryan Hyde, one of our Public Workshop Community Design Fellows, for leading the co-development of the Place Tags. An undergraduate in Industrial Design at the University of the Arts, Ryan is an incredibly skilled wood worker (his guitars are amazing) and a super nice guy.