The problems facing East Baltimore on HBO’s The Wire aren't limited to television scripts. Urban blight, crime, and extreme poverty persist, while large-scale revitalization efforts lag. But such hardships have not stopped some locals from imagining a more vibrant future for their neighborhood. One group of students from the Maryland Institute College of Art is using design to spark social change, and they’ve chosen an unlikely catalyst to lead the experiment: a picnic table on wheels.
The five-member design team, whose project At the Table was a finalist for the Connect Challenge on GOOD Maker, wanted to create a mobile public space that would facilitate dialogue and connection. The idea was born in a brainstorming session with John Bielenberg of Project M, a visiting artist last fall in the school’s master's program in social design. The group was asked to dream up a project that represented a positive future for East Baltimore and could be completed in 48 hours. Says student Briony Hynson, “John encouraged us to ‘think wrong,’ and push ideas to the furthest possible iteration. He really freed us to set aside our heuristic biases as designers.” Take a peek at the finished project here:
The mobile picnic table travels across East Baltimore for pop-up community events ranging from free coffee service (“Coffee At The Table”) to BBQs. A recent collaboration with the Baltimore City Health Department and The Noun Project, an open-source catalog of symbols, resulted in a one-day “Iconothon” inviting locals to create graphics representing community health concepts. Future offerings will include resume-writing workshops, arm-wrestling competitions, and even a nail salon for neighbors. This spring, the team will also host “Playscape Design At The Table” for youth interested in transforming an empty lot in the area into a community green space.
If you live in Baltimore and want to learn more about the students behind the project, check out MICA’s Social Design Thesis Exhibition at the Pinkard Gallery from April 20 through 27.