Mar 19, 2020

Let’s Play! Community-Led Design for a More Just Future

by: Beth Enson, Mateo Fernández-Muro, Shari Hersh, Gamar Markarian

Using public art as a platform, how might we develop and sustain resilience strategies that privilege local knowledge and build social, material, and financial capital at the same time? 

Our Park/Southwark, a community-led redesign of Southwark Elementary’s outdoor spaces instigated by Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Environmental Justice Initiative, provided a platform where the community co-designed beauty and meaning through collective thinking and artistic practices. Throughout the project, successful strategies to promote equity, community leadership, and horizontal collaboration included playing games, hiring community members, designing and building together, and prioritizing time and resources for collective processes. The intent was subversive of dominant-culture values and the process was enjoyed by all participants. 

Make a Game 

Among the diverse populations that call South Philadelphia home, cultural differences and language barriers can keep neighbors from finding common ground. Design Strategists, Gamar Markarian and Mateo Fernández-Muro, used gameplay to dissolve these barriers. This innovative strategy also reinforced the perception of the school as a hub for neighborhood activity and interaction. Gameplay is an empowering tool for re-signifying public space as a place for gathering and decision-making.

By translating a map of the Southwark Elementary city block into a giant board game, it became an instrument that triggered excitement and engagement among participants. Using a mash-up of features and mechanics from Monopoly and Cards Against Humanity, the game allowed uninhibited expression of desires and ideas for making the schoolyard useful and meaningful.

Bringing a playful dimension to urban discussions allows stakeholders with different interests and levels of privilege– such as youth, parents, business owners, elected officials, activists, and neighbors– to discuss better solutions for their environment on an equal footing. Games help expose challenges and lead participants to develop and engage with possible alternatives to current conditions. By activating imaginations and prompting fun, gameplay creates opportunities for unexpected and meaningful connections, emboldening players to imagine and share solutions free from the constraints they might feel in a formal meeting. Games constitute a first step towards citizen engagement by convening and organizing people at a local level to have fun and dream together.

Play the game (a lot and with different people) 

Various stakeholders played the Southwark Game 11 times; each game had up to 4 different languages and up to 35 youth, parents and community members around the table. Using the game as a design charrette, players chose question cards (fill in the blank statement cards) from five areas of focus: hardscape, greening, programming, art, and a joker pile. Players conferred amongst themselves and selected the best answer. The game sparked a wonderful process of debate and analysis regarding the placement of possible solution cards on the gameboard. Players used their intimate, everyday knowledge of the site, and held long, involved, and often hilarious discussions about the pros and cons of each decision, which in turn allowed their priorities to converge. 

Dream a Vision Together (Postcards From the Future) 

Another creative activity was Postcards from the Future, which depicted the image of Southwark School nested in green and colorful surroundings on one side and on the reverse, two key questions for participants to respond to:  

What is your treasure (that you bring into the space)? 

What is your dream for Southwark Schoolyard? 

By eliciting from participants their own unique and personal skill or capacity they could imagine contributing to the collective endeavor, they could project themselves into the future space they were creating. The ‘recipe’ for the schoolyard’s design took life from the real ingredients that community members possessed, not from prescriptive ideas of what the community should or must need. Once this shift in perspective was achieved, participants were freed to dream together about what they could actually call into being. The visioning session provided a platform in which a democratized production of meaning could enable the enactment of the aspirational. 

Prioritize Local Expertise, Hire Community Design Leaders 

For the design process to tap into the wisdom and perspectives of people closest to the situation, it’s vital to hire local residents who possess the intimate knowledge of resources, obstacles and strategies that will work in their neighborhood, an expertise that no outside professional can ever hope to replicate. This vital, underutilized resource is what Philadelphia activist and organizer William Goldsby calls “the intelligence in the room.” Paying community members for their expertise constitutes respect and reciprocity in developing a project. It’s not reasonable to expect low-income community members to volunteer their time while project staff are on the clock. Formalizing practices that prioritize local expertise not only disrupts conventional and oppressive structures of power but also elicits a sense of importance and collectivity among community members that is often reserved for traditional decision makers.

Environmental Justice hired three Southwark residents as Community Organizers to spread awareness of the project and invite people to design/build events, and 10 to 12 Community Design Leaders (CDLs) for building projects. CDLs played an essential role in co-producing all parts of the creative process. They embody the tenet of Environmental Justice that members of impacted communities guide the agenda and the use of resources. 

CDL Sulay reflected, “Participar en este proyecto, ha sido una experiencia maravillosa… Recuerdo los días de junta que el lugar de venir y nos dieran a conocer sus ideas, como siempre suele ser, está vez fue diferente. El equipo de trabajo vino con nosotros a conocer nuestras ideas y nuestro sueños” (“Participating in this project has been a marvellous experience… This time it was different. Instead of coming in with their design ideas, the work team came to us to learn our ideas and our dreams.”)

For Collective Results, Work With Collectives and/or Collectively 

Following the completion of the vision and design concept for the schoolyard transformation, interested community members took part in a design/build process with Basurama, an artists’ collective from Madrid. Basurama is dedicated to research, cultural and environmental creation and production whose practice revolves around the reflection of trash, waste and reuse in all its forms and possible meanings. Manu Polanco says, “the physical construction of a project is one of the most effective ways to build a community. For this purpose, the construction work must be inclusive, relaxed and involve a positive learning experience for the participants.” One participant complimented Manu of Basurama, saying that he was “participating and supervising, but in no way micromanaging.” 

Community design leaders and community volunteers repurposed obsolete school desks from the waste stream as the raw materials to make Southwark’s raised bed planters, seating and a Maker Space. Work days always included a shared meal, and plenty of time to relax and have fun together. Using materials designated as trash to build objects of beauty and utility transformed a grim and barren space into one of beauty, creativity and possibility, subverting the superimposed value structure of low worth conveyed tacitly by acres of bare asphalt. This process speaks to the Right to the City, articulated by David Harvey, “… far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” Basurama posits, “These processes are constantly evolving: they never stop generating conflict and raising questions about ourselves as citizens and the way we interact with the city and other people.”

Make Every Meeting a Game  

No participant ever had to sit and listen as part of a passive audience. Every event provided fun, participatory activities in which each and every voice counted. Engaging with the unexpected and intriguing creations of each others’ imaginations and experiencing collective agency in making important decisions for the common good proved compelling and inspiring. Creating the shared resource of a park and gathering space mobilized participants to connect their energies on a deeply human level and change their neighborhood and the relationships that sustain it. 

This project is made possible with the partnership of Trust for Public Land, Southwark School and the Southwark community. 

Last updated: Jun 3, 2020

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