COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Movement for Youth-Led Placemaking Is Growing Up

Riva Kapoor
Sep 13, 2019
Sep 19, 2019

When I was 16, I fell in love with public space. From the courtyard of my high school to the local park in my distant hometown to the global public space that is Times Square. What makes them work? And how could I make them work better? 

The concept of placemaking fascinated me. How did the layout of the high school courtyard make it more prone to self-segregation? Why did locals complain about graffiti in the park, but advocate for commissioned art? Could Times Square’s ‘Big Belly Solar Bins’ be used to compress waste in an eco-friendly way in recycling bins around the world? I wanted to experience as many public spaces as possible, learn as much about them as I could, and then see my voice included in them as much as it could be.

Project for Public Spaces shone as a beacon of light in my search for all things placemaking, giving me one of the most rewarding summers a teenager could ask for. In the summer of 2017, I became the organization’s first high-school intern, and by the time I completed that internship two months later, I had visited, photographed, and researched 29 public spaces in New York City as case studies in the power of placemaking.

Young people from all around the world come together in New York’s Times Square, the busiest public space in the world, on spin-top chairs which make you feel like you're like on a rollercoaster. | Photo by me!

Photographing Diversity Plaza in Queens, I understood how even small-scale changes to space management could help anchor a multi-ethnic community. Conducting extensive interviews and analyzing spatial data, I came to understand the sentiments behind the controversies of the High Line, the now famous public park built on a dormant Manhattan freight line. Observing different ethnic and social groups in Prospect Park, I discovered firsthand how public space can maximize shared value.

My article, Youth for Public Space: (Place) Making our Future, drew on my experiences, and focussed on my exploration of how young people, like me, are often left out of the placemaking process. After I left Project for Public Spaces, I launched a new youth placemaking platform in 2017 called Future Place: Makers and Shakers. Soon this platform will join PPS’s sister organization PlacemakingX, which connects local placemaking networks around the world. 

Teen participants in the Investigating Where We Live program present exhibition design concepts to reviewers. | Photo courtesy of the National Building Museum

But the story didn’t end there. Recently, I returned to Project for Public Spaces to see more youth engagement than I could have imagined. In two short years, PPS has become even more committed to raising the bar for including youth—and community members of all ages, gender identities, sexual orientations, races and cultures—at every step of the placemaking process, from conception to design to management. 

Project for Public Spaces’ partnership with the National Building Museum’s Investigating Where We Live program is allowing more teenagers who are passionate about public space to find their voice. Investigating Where We Live, which received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2013, is a five-week intensive urban exploration and exhibition design summer program for teens from the Washington, DC, area. Teens explore the city, learn various forms of artistic expression, meet creative professionals, and design and install a museum exhibition.

After reading my article on youth for public space, Lauren Wilson, Director of Community Engagement at the National Building Museum, reached out to me. Many conversations later, this year’s theme for Investigating Where We Live, emerged: What if teens had more of a voice in shaping our public spaces?

Teen participants in the Investigating Where We Live program explore streets as public space in the historic Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC. | Photo courtesy of the National Building Museum

For five weeks, 30 teenagers worked hard to imagine how outdoor public spaces would change if developers, designers, planners, and city agencies valued youth as stakeholders. With this in mind, participants visited DC parks and neighbourhoods and considered what makes a public space inclusive, accessible, and welcoming. Working with artists, museum professionals, and community members, participants designed and installed the For You by Youth: Urban Landscapes Reimagined exhibition, open from August 2019 until March 2020, to share their vision for great outdoor public spaces that foster community expression, encourage confidence in oneself, and promote sustainability. 

Priti Patel of Project for Public Spaces and I lent our expertise to the program through webinars and discussion groups with Investigating Where We Live program staff and participants. We shared insights about what makes a great public space, tools to evaluate public spaces, and examples to help participants imagine what is possible in the public realm. We also examined how young people can be discouraged from gathering in public spaces through unintended or intended design choices, such as metal work that prevents skate boarding, or posted signage banning loud music and loitering. We explored how feeling confident in a public space first requires feeling included. And as the youth prepared to create their own murals, we looked at examples of Project for Public Spaces work that involve art. 

Through this process, we concluded that great public spaces not only highlight local assets and serve common needs, but are also spaces for new forms of solidarity.

Visitors get a first look at the exhibition For You by Youth: Urban Landscapes Reimagined, designed and installed by teens in the Investigating Where We Live program. | Photo courtesy of the National Building Museum

This year’s Investigating Where We Live program finished with an exhibition opening ceremony for participants’ friends and family on Saturday, August 10th at the National Building Museum. The exhibition will continue until March 2020, and you are all invited to see the amazing work these teens have been doing to understand and reimagine DC’s public spaces. We are so proud of all of the Investigating Where We Live participants and delighted to have been part of their placemaking journey. We cannot wait to see how they develop into placemakers and shakers of the future!

I wish I could have “investigated where we live” with the National Building Museum when I was a junior in high school three years ago. But I am grateful for the voice that Project for Public Spaces continues to give to young people with a crush on public space.

Riva Kapoor
Riva Kapoor
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