by Kenneth Nelson and Becky Yurek
On Friday, August 23, the AIANY Civic Leadership Program’s (CLP) Class of 2019 convened for their third development session to explore exclusion, inclusion, and engagement in the public realm from the standpoint of children and teens. Organized by CLP members Kenneth Nelson and Becky Yurek, the program hosted six remarkable thinkers and practitioners whose work collectively illuminates the best practices of inclusive design for young people: Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids; Georgeen Theodore, Principal of Interboro and co-author of The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion; Christopher Noel, Accessibility Coordinator for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; Tiffany Briery, NYC Playgrounds Program Coordinator at the Trust for Public Land; Francesca Birks, Associate Principal of Foresight and Design Strategy at Arup; and Anna Siprikova, Senior Program Associate for Streets for Kids at NACTO’s Global Designing Cities Initiative.
In addition, nycoba|NOMA President Samantha Josaphat was invited by the 2019 CLP advisors for the advisor-led portion of the session. Josaphat delivered a presentation on mental health and wellness within the practice of architecture, highlighting nycoba|NOMA’s efforts to raise awareness among practitioners. During her presentation, she included questions directed at the group to encourage an open discussion about personal experiences with anxiety in the workplace. Josaphat led an activity to better convey the severity of mental illnesses and concluded with a presentation on how the profession is currently affected by mental health issues, before providing resources and strategies.
Together, the group examined how public space can either exclude people or invite their participation, exploring how architects can recognize the signs of exclusion to ensure our public spaces are truly public. As Kat Holmes describes in Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, assuming an average or typical human condition risks yielding inflexible solutions that actually serve few people well. By contrast, designing for those most likely to be excluded can yield solutions that work for a multitude of people, often in unexpected ways. The organization 8 80 Cities puts it this way: “If everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people.”
In focusing on kids and teens, the session sought to demonstrate how child-friendly design is just good design—design that makes cities more livable for everyone and helps to achieve equity in the built environment. .Children don’t get to have a voice in the decisions that affect them, yet they tend to suffer the most from our bad decisions: they are among the most impacted by dangerous traffic conditions, poor air quality, and the stress and anxiety that arise from having too few places to play. Meanwhile, the rules and forms of public space often exclude teens overtly. Designing to support young people therefore serves as a case study in equity, giving voice to those often forgotten or excluded.
How can we see past our own biases to design for people whose age and abilities may differ from our own? What does a child-friendly city look like? Can engaging kids and teens in the design process empower them to shape the world around them? To explore this subject, the session’s six panelists described case studies of exclusion and inclusion, as well as the role design can play in supporting young people.
Alexandra Lange kicked off the panel by presenting a brief history of children in the city. She framed our shifting cultural attitudes toward play as a question of the freedom and independence children should be granted, describing the oscillation over time between our desire to keep kids contained on the playground and to allow them the freedom to fully participate in everyday life on the streets. Meanwhile, our attitude toward teenagers, as she describes in “No Loitering, No Skateboarding, No Baggy Pants,” centers on restricting their freedom; we design against them. Making the case that our infrastructure should support all ages—and that playground audits must look beyond geographic area to assess the ages of children served—Lange pointed to recent initiatives that slow and soften the streetscape, create play for all ages, and introduce intergenerational programming into streets and parks.
Georgeen Theodore introduced the The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion and presented on measures specifically designed to exclude kids and teenagers from public space, from ultrasonic noise and classical music to youth curfews and parental escort policies. She framed several of Interboro’s built projects as an effort to build inclusivity that begins in the design process and continues through the life of a built project. At the Forest Park Natural Playscape in St. Louis, Interboro conceived of the design process as a feedback loop that not only engaged kids in the design of their park, but created a youth constituency with an ongoing stake in its success. By designing tools for participation, Interboro introduces a multiplicity of voices into the design process, creating environments that can themselves be appropriated to further build community.
Christopher Noel described how the NYC Parks Department’s Parks Without Borders initiative has not only opened up parks to their communities through welcoming and engaging edges, but has also removed the barriers within city parks to create inclusive, multi-generational spaces that blur the boundaries between park and playground. He demonstrated the range of approaches that can best serve kids according to their age, needs, abilities, and preferences, including sensory play that prioritizes touch and sound, quiet play that provides a respite, parkour and challenge courses for teens, and adult fitness serving elderly park users. The examples shared by Noel go beyond the requirements of ADA to offer inclusive, multifunctional elements that can be used in a multitude of ways.
Tiffany Briery described how the Trust for Public Land (TPL) works with schools and communities to transform underutilized asphalt schoolyards into vital community assets. By engaging kids in the design process through a dedicated curriculum, the program empowers them to see their ideas come to fruition, yields designs that reflect the specific needs and desires of their communities, and builds stewardship relationships that contribute to the long-term care and life of the playgrounds. In collaboration with public partners and private funders, TPL has delivered over 200 playgrounds that have collectively engaged over 6,800 students in the design process, captured 19 million gallons of storm water annually, and placed over four million New Yorkers within a ten-minute walk of a playground.
Francesca Birks enlarged the frame of reference by returning to the question of how cities themselves can be child-friendly. Citing Arup’s Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, she identified two principles key to a child-friendly approach: places for children to go, and their ability to get there with autonomy and freedom. Birks stressed distinction between child-like and child-friendly, making the case that anyone—children included—should be able to move through the world and experience it equally. In New Orleans, Arup is working closely with city leaders, public agencies, community members, and children and teens to turn this approach into a planning framework for a child-friendly city, identifying not only long-term tools but short-term strategies to yield early results.
Anna Siprikova made the case that our streets are our biggest public space asset, yet their disproportionate allocation to cars has meant that people, and especially young children and their caregivers, have been excluded. Through its Global Street Design Guide, the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI) aims to shift the balance in favor of people through multimodal streets that not only provide a safer and more comfortable experience, but also move more people. In their upcoming design guide focused on streets for kids, GDCI will examine what the pedestrian experience can look like when designed from the perspective of children.
The session provided a broad roadmap to building inclusivity for young people into our public spaces, from the smallest playground element to the city itself. Panelists highlighted how inclusivity begins early in the design process, through meaningful engagement that seeks to reach as many different kinds of people as possible, approaching engagement itself as a design problem to meet people where they are and build relationships founded in trust and transparency. The session demonstrated how the inclusivity founded in the design process continues into the life of a space, whether through inviting young people to shape and reshape the elements of their physical environment or tend to its long-term care and stewardship. Finally the session addressed the critical role design can play in allowing young people the independence, freedom, and dignity to navigate the world on equal terms with adults.