Solving civic issues locally for national change
How architects worked with children and adults to imagine better, safer communities and schools at Chicago Ideas festival.
The issues of ownership and power are crucial when addressing civic problems. Residents are increasingly asking how they can be more involved in, or better stewards of, their cities and towns. While the vast majority of the American public does not identify as architects or designers, do they have tools to make our communities safer and better-prepared to address critical challenges?
As a part of a collaboration between the American Institute of Architects’ Blueprint for Better public awareness campaign and the Chicago Ideas festival, architects were invited to lead two separate design-based public workshops: one for students and another for adults. Both were held at Gensler’s Chicago office, where groups spent a few hours of their day looking critically at the world around them to prioritize pressing issues faced by communities and build a path forward using design thinking.
The first workshop consisted of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students from various schools across the city. Groups of five or six students—each paired with a Chicago-based architect coach—were asked to design a safe school. The first activity was led by Helen Slade, AIA, who asked students to describe the qualities of safe places. Light, openness, friends, familiarity—students declared that they felt most safe among people they knew and in places that made them feel welcome and comforted.
Next, provided with materials such as felt, blocks, foil, and glue guns, students got to work on building a model of their ideal learning environment.
Slade’s team created a physical “feelings map” of how students felt inside their school by writing their emotions on pieces of paper and placing them side-by-side like rooms in a building. “We wanted the students to come up with their aspirations for a school, and then we created a list of safety concerns, which we prioritized,” said Slade. Her team chose drug use, theft, and bullying as their primary concerns.
Several students in Slade’s group linked the happiest moment of their days to seeing friends in communal spaces like locker areas and the cafeteria. Others, however, identified sources of anxiety. “This is the refocusing room,” said one Collins Academy student, pointing at her paper which had “anger” written upon it. “It’s where you go if you aren’t paying attention or are being disrespectful. I don’t like that room, and I’d like it to be different” she commented.
They then laid out the emotions they wanted to feel in specific spaces. One student placed a “chill” note next to the front office stating, “I feel happy when I can chill out with my friends, and I want start my day off with happiness right when I walk in.”
Small revelations of students making immediate connections between meaningful spaces and emotional changes drove much of what the teams developed. One group of participants in the Chicago Ideas Week Youth Program, a year-long immersive program for CPS students, focused on access to their favorite foods and the outdoors. Led by Peter Exley, FAIA, the team created a dynamic campus for sports, art, and connecting with one another.
“Our school has views, light, fountains, and a huge field for outdoor sports,” said one Phoenix Military Academy student.
“We put a nature preserve next to the food truck parking lot, so kids can walk through nature before they go get lunch,” added another.
During final presentations, many teams added swimming or relaxation pools, and discussed how the simple act of sitting in water calms them down. Others added agricultural landscapes where they could grow food; another team, led by Linda Keane, AIA, created three floors with specific finishes that would allow students to paint and draw on lockers and walls. All of the models, however, included an abundance of glass in ceilings, floors, and curtain walls. “We don’t see a lot of light in my school right now,” said one student. “And with more light you feel more productive.”
The Blueprint for Better campaign seeks to expand public understanding of architecture, including the possibility of a career in design. Lawon Williams, a computer science, coding, and robotics teacher at Collins Academy, saw the workshop as an opportunity for his students to think about their futures and their own power. “I think [the workshop] will expose the kids to thinking outside the box about what their community could look like, showing them that they have the tools they need to build up their community,” he said.
One week later, a group of adults gathered in the Gensler conference room to participate in a similar activity: to use design thinking to create solutions to social and experiential challenges within the built environment. A group of local and visiting architects led six teams of adults in activities and exercises to get them thinking like architects.
The first activity was a Blueprint for Better card game. Players drew one card from each of three stacks: cards in one stack described a place, another included a verb, and another provided a crucial detail. Players then devised a design-based idea that would incorporate all three elements into a design solution.
“In an ingenious town, there is a postcard that deals with tourism,” said participant Lisa Saul, reading her three cards aloud. Saul devised a scenario in which a Chicago neighborhood that wanted to attract more tourists designed a building that would house postcards. “The postcards would showcase stories from people of all ethnicities who lived in that neighborhood,” she added. “And visitors from other countries would be encouraged to come and leave their own stories, too.”
Widely varied proposals included creating augmented reality murals, museums for weather events in climate change–affected localities, and mobile technology centers for seniors. Participant Yoga Prakasa flew in from Washington, D.C., to participate in the workshop. His team, led by Patricia Saldaña Natke, FAIA, addressed how a small town could maintain its own identity while hosting a worldwide sporting event. “The town could paint murals across the city that depict their history and love for sports,” he explained. “Public art can be way for people to take ownership over their city.”
2020 AIA President-elect Jane Frederick, FAIA, sees these conversations as necessary to creating a more active public. “We want them to leave [the workshop] understanding that they all have the ability to get engaged in the civic processes. That if there’s a public meeting or design charrette, they’ll go with their ideas and opinions and design their city.” Big ideas begin with fighting small battles—not so different from nouns and verbs on a deck of cards.
Through these workshops, students and adults were encouraged to explore their own power in the built environment, to discover ownership and civic engagement in different ways. While students never truly addressed safety issues in their models—there were no conversations about bulletproof glass or locking doors—students saw school safety in terms of access to nature, plentiful snacks, and opportunities for togetherness and community. They learned that the experience of space is an emotional one and can begin within themselves. Said one student, “I think I knew that buildings can make you feel a certain way, but no one has asked me to design a school before. I didn’t know what was possible.”
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and editor of Chicago Architect magazine.