It was a scorchingly hot Tuesday afternoon last summer on a rough corner in South Chicago. Despite the heat, and despite it being the time of day when people normally start rolling in to buy drugs and alcohol, things were a little different that day. Jania, a 17-year-old from the community, pictured above, was smiling, and others around her were, too.
It was the second day in our design-build program, where a group of local teenage girls were working to transform a vacant lot in their neighborhood. Jania was smiling because she had just used power tools for the first time, and just built something—a work bench—for the first time. But she was also smiling because she was seeing her community start to transform due to her actions.
A church donated the empty lot to us, full of broken bottles and needles. As the girls worked on the sidewalk with power tools, the community—whether from inspiration or embarrassment—silently went and cleaned up the lot, which hadn't been touched for years.
As the girls continued to build over the next few days, mocking up full-scale prototypes for different 'uses' and improvements to the lot, community members continued to come. The cops, who are pretty vilified in the neighborhood, also came. But gang members came, too. If there had been one male on the design-build team, things would have been different. If the team hadn't been from the community, things would have been different. But because these were local teenage women, we got an incredible swath of society from the neighborhood. People were actually authentically engaging in helping determine the highest use for the vacant lot.
Over that first week, after interviewing hundreds of people, the girls found that the community wanted the space to be a neutral place for children to play. They were inspired by the metaphor of Switzerland, and designed a playground with the shapes of mountains, rivers, and big meadows. The girls learned how to do everything they needed to make it happen, from pouring concrete to tying sailors' knots.
The community kept coming to help as the project finished, and attitudes started to change. The neighborhood, Roseland, was once called the "Community of Hope," but in more recent years, it's been known as the "Community of No Hope." The young ladies' action had their neighbors talking about how it's beginning to feel more like a Community of Hope again.
The playground in Roseland was created with our partners Demoiselle 2 Femmes and Latent Design and is part of a larger program at Public Workshop called Tiny WPA (Tiny Works Progress Administration); we find needs in cities where youth actions can have a transformative impact. Sometimes that means repairing things, sometimes it's gathering data and stories to substantiate action, and sometimes it's just getting adults to behave. In Roseland, teenagers modeled behaviors that adults had forgotten. The community saw the girls work, and thought, "If they can do it, why can't I?"
One of the things we've learned through our work is that we need to make design visible. Move your design studio, or your classroom, or your city hall meeting, to the sidewalk. When you're designing and building incredible things in public that no one thinks are possible—not just doing an art project or a mosaic, but actually solving a problem—people are inspired to come up to you and ask questions, and share advice or offer resources. There's a seamless feedback loop with the community. When teens from that community are leading this highly public designing and building—as they are in every one of our Tiny WPA projects—many more wonderful things happen.
We start with building because it's a conversation tool. Some problems in the world are so complex, and the systems are so broken, that it's hard to have a logical conversation about them. The only way to figure out an answer is by getting out there and doing something. As you create something tangible, in context, you can begin to have deeper conversations with a community, and start to create true change.
Images courtesy of Public Workshop