Teens Activating Vacant Lots By Design-Building Places For Play, Exercise + Community.

Posted on November 12th, 2013 at 8:48 pm by in Our Work

Teens Activating Vacant Lots By Design-Building Places For Play, Exercise + Community.

Last year we had the great pleasure of working with the ArtPlace funded Flint Public Art Project and some great teens from Flint-Genesee Job Corps to design and build temporary bus stop improvements. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose to work with them again this year and do another Tiny WPA project, we leapt at the chance.

Most of our projects this summer involved ‘play’ in one form or another but the unabated outpouring of joy and happiness during the community block party in north Flint, unveiling the adventure course/playground/community meeting space designed and built by the teens was truly special. Kids testing and playing in totally unforeseen ways, stretching the design of the space in wonderful ways; parents and older adults feeling compelled to climb, jump, leap, and race in a highly visible public space; and giggles, smiles and laughter consuming the event, drawing in passersby and erasing social boundaries.

The event was a true testament to the power of kids, play, and great design (built by teens) to bring people together in new ways.

The final installation that we designed and built with students from Rejean Houle‘s carpentry workshop at Job Corps is the culmination of a community driven process that started with a collaboration between the Flint Public Art Project, The Berston Bicycle Club and other community members. Supported by the Ruth Mott Foundation, the partners wanted to wrestle with Flint’s overwhelming number of vacant lots and create a prototype for the community driven transformation of these lots. Through community bike rides and working with the Flint Land Bank, the team identified the lot to transform and held a series of lot clean-up days. In mid August we were excitedly reunited with Rejean and his students and started our normal Tiny WPA process of building and prototyping at full scale on the site from day one. Given the proximity to a fairly high speed road and the lack of density in the neighborhood, we had to supercharge our normal tactic of ‘making design visible’ and ‘tactical doing’, building even more boldly (taller, bigger, more dramatically) and employing a nearly blindingly bright color–orange–to draw in passersby, to get people to slow down, gawk and share ideas. People stopped their cars, various local kids helped prototype, and a couple of community groups helped out. Quickly, a desire to have a place to ‘play’, ‘exercise’ and ‘sit/gather as a community’, rose to the top as priorities and this drove the first week of prototyping, leading to the a crazy hybrid space merging picnic tables, slides, ramps and sculpture. We think that the allure of pallets as a building material is entirely overrated but in this case, the pallets and the community driven ‘uses’ aligned, allowing the team to quickly create a 100% playable/usable prototype space that really accelerated the conversation around possibility.

This expanded sense of possibility was not limited to community members. Indeed, at the end of Week 1, the reflections from the Job Corps team were incredibly powerful. It’s unsurprising that iterating and building without a plan are things that they are entirely unaccustomed to; that these things made them remarkably uncomfortable; and that by the end of Week 1 they felt newly empowered to ‘do’, ‘test’ and ‘fail’. The biggest surprise though was how deeply they were touched, inspired and even emboldened by our focus on ‘play’. Life has not been easy for many students who go through Job Corps and some students initially struggled mightily because they never got to ‘play’, they never got to be a kid. Reflections from Robin and other members of the team show that this project and the process truly opened up new windows in the students’ lives but also make compelling cases for why we need to be doing projects like these everywhere.

The first phase ended with a community meeting, party and adventure race on the structures prototyped by the team. We then came back two weeks later, spent ten days design-building more durable structures with the Job Corps team based on the initial round of community feedback and celebrated with the block party.


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