Playing for keeps: 'Making Our Own Space' initiative puts design in the hands of youth

At just 11 years old, Johnathan Streeter has built benches and dreamed up playscapes. His favorite pastime is video games, but his favorite tool these days is a revved-up circular saw.  After spending the summer learning about design, he’s beginning to see how the two relate.

“We laid all these out,” he tells me while balancing on the yellow wooden stoop he helped construct in Britt Oval Park at Saint Luke's Pointe, a housing and office development on the former Saint Luke's Hospital site in Buckeye-Shaker.

“But the main idea of this is...” he trails off and drops, sprawling all 4-foot-something of himself across the brightly hued wood with one arm leisurely tucked behind his head as if it were his job to illustrate the pinnacle of relaxation. Zoe McClain-Ferrell, a tall 12-year-old with pulled back braids and electric orange sneaker laces, props her legs up beside him on the ledge that overlooks Cleveland's skyline.

As part of this year’s first Making Our Own Space (MOOS) initiative piloted by Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), Streeter, McClain-Ferrell and a dozen other 7th and 8th graders from Boys and Girls Club and high-schoolers from East End Neighborhood House are getting their first shot at engaging in urban planning. The program, which is aimed at immersing students in a spectrum of design disciplines, has zeroed in on renovating the Britt Oval park.

For the 9-month session that began this January, CUDC associate director and MOOS cofounder David Jurca brought in architect Erick Rodriguez and graphic designer Arlene Watson to teach workshops. In early August, Alex Gilliam, the Philadelphia-based founder of the national project Public Workshop, will come to Cleveland for a week-long class. A SPLASH event at Britt Oval on August 8 from 12 – 2 p.m. will show off the culmination of their work.

Both Rodriguez and Watson were pulled from CUDC’s Design Diversity organization, which was created to encourage more people of color to consider careers in design. As of the 2010 census, African-Americans made up 53 percent of Cleveland’s population, yet are represented by only 2 percent of America’s architects. If just a handful of MOOS students are influenced to pursue a design career, it could mark a major tip of the scale.

Young Voices

On a sunny Friday afternoon at the park, Jurca asks Streeter and McClain-Ferrell, “What do you hope to get from this?”

“To get people to come and keep coming back. So they want to build things of their own,” says McClain-Ferrell. “I just want to be able to say, ‘I made that.’”

This is their park made to their specifications. And that’s no small feat.

Jurca knows that although community planning often focuses on creating spaces for youth, those very same voices are regularly left out of the actual discussion. The format of public meetings aren’t aligned to make them feel welcome, Jurca says, whether it’s the time, location or questions asked.

Bridging that gap came into focus when Saint Luke’s Foundation staff came to Jurca and his team to develop a program that could teach kids to get involved in design early. The Foundation, which last year relocated to the newly renovated wing of the Saint Luke’s Pointe building, offered space in the building for MOOS.

Down a flight of stairs in the basement, post-it notes litter the walls below renderings of Britt Oval park. 2x4 planks of wood and saws and toolboxes are scattered throughout, ready to be put into working hands. For many of the MOOS students, these below-ground brainstorming slams are their first introduction to the beginning stages of design.

“So often they’re overlooked,” Jurca notes. Which is unfortunate, because he points to their on-the-ground neighborhood insight as an invaluable, but untapped, resource. Youth are the focal point yet they remain our best kept secret, sidelined on the periphery.

Recalling a past CUDC project at Cleveland Public Library’s Sterling branch, Jurca remembers an unusually high number of youth turned out for a meeting that mapped the neighborhood’s challenges and assets. Right away they knew all the answers: This is the street where there’s not enough light at night, this is the street where there’s a great park, this is the street you never walk down because it’s not safe.

“I’ve never had such high resolution, detailed site analysis than that group of kids,” he says. “We’re missing out on their ideas. Youth know their neighborhoods better than a lot of us do.”

The long-term, two-fold impact seems obvious. As Cleveland continues to battle population loss, making our design decisions responsive to the needs of those most likely to flee in the next decade is a missing link to combating brain drain. By placing it into their own hands, MOOS is taking it one step further.

“They’re city inhabitants like the rest of us and they deserve to have voices in the places they use,” says Jurca. “It’s going to become more and more their environment as they take roles and responsibilities in the community. We want Cleveland to be a viable option to them.”

Inside Out

Erick Rodriguez came to Cleveland in 2014 as a Rose Architectural Fellow, a three-year program where he’ll be working with the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc., serving the Central, Kinsman and Garden Valley neighborhoods.

Raised in Los Angeles as the son of a barber, Rodriguez’s home was consistently packed full of neighbors waiting for their seat at his mom’s chair. His house was the community living room, he remembers, when sometimes all he wanted to do was sit down and watch TV like a normal kid. His mother refused, offering construction paper and scissors instead.

It may have been a blessing in disguise. Rodriguez went on to found L.A.’s CITY ART PLAY, a youth art program that created outdoor activities to spark conversations. For example, a hop scotch game where each team of kids created their own rules turned into a parade of the kids talking to their neighbors and explaining how to play.

“A lot of times when kids are young they have so much imagination,” he says. “In some ways, some of the kids, especially in lower income neighborhoods, feel like they need to put on a front as if 'playing is no longer for me.' It’s essential for us to be able to communicate to kids that it’s okay to go out there.”

For his recent MOOS workshop, Rodriguez used building kites as not only a simple example of architecture but a chance to discuss how different cultures perceive kites. After constructing them indoors, they flew them outdoors at Britt Oval, putting into action another idea they had for the park’s use.

“A lot of time kids feel they have no say in what’s being built,” says Rodriguez. “Being able to have input and be part of that process really encourages them to be stewards of the space and invite others to participate in that. Youth can look back on their memories there and feel compelled to improve it.”

Full Steam Ahead

Planning and building out a space is one thing, but giving that space an identity is an entirely different, yet critical, piece of design’s bigger picture. Arlene Watson, principal of local design and communications firm Möbius Grey, wants to help students let neighbors know what Britt Oval means to them. For Watson, that starts with bringing the concept of “branding” into a context kids can understand.

“Have any of you made a flier?” Arlene Watson asked her MOOS students and hands shot up. She had them identify common logos – Nike, for example – and the trademarks of personal brands, like LeBron James. Once they understood those ideas, she said, they were able to apply it to the MOOS brand.

Watson started with basic brainstorming, asking kids to draw what came to mind when they thought of MOOS and what it symbolizes. After voting on their favorites, some of the ideas shaped the graphics that became their logo and t-shirt design.

“We looked at how you communicate a sense of place and turn it into something that people can be attracted to,” says Watson. “How do you spread the word? What cues do you use to get people excited about it?”

When it comes to careers in art, Watson maintains exposure is the biggest challenge. Schools may rely heavily on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – model, but incorporating the “A” for art – STEAM – is pivotal to recruiting new designers. MOOS, she hopes, can help make that connection.

“A lot of kids go to public schools where art and music classes are being cut. If all they know of art is painting, or graffiti or fliers, they don’t think of design as being a building, or furniture or a car,” Watson says. “We need them to relate to that as an opportunity to be educated in it and pursue it as an adult.”

Work in Progress

Designers know the best-laid plans often go astray and the final product is better for all the trial and error endured. On the playground, Jurca asks, “How have your ideas changed?”

He’s met with Streeter’s quick response: “I just thought we were making a regular playground. This is better. This has more character; it’s colorful.”

It’s a concept – dust yourself off and try again – that Jurca and Alex Gilliam, the founder of Public Workshop, have instilled in the kids from day one.

Alex Gilliam has been bringing placemaking projects to youth across the country, from a community design leadership program for middle schools in the Bronx to skate parks in Camden, NJ to a makerspace in his own Philadelphia home base. This August, his week-long workshop with MOOS aims to create more concrete plans for Britt Oval.

One of his most important rules through the process: always leave room for failure.

“We’ll build things, we’ll test it out, we’ll knock it down and we’ll do it again until it gets to a state that really meets the needs of the users and the team’s ideas,” he says. “That’s how most of us started learning about the world. It’s important to have the possibility to change.”

On his visits to Cleveland in the past year, he remembers the teenagers from houses surrounding Britt Oval who approached the construction site wanting to get involved. As the founder of a project that puts tools in the hands of kids and asks them to shape their cities, it’s likely he’s used to skepticism followed by enthusiasm in swelling numbers.

All it takes, he says, is getting people to stop and swing a hammer and feel like they’re a part of something.

“We’re wired as humans to copy one another,” says Gilliam. “So when you see a young person designing and building something that no one thinks is possible, it makes it really hard for passersby not to get involved. Your mirroring neurons start kicking in, thinking, if they can do it, why can’t I?"

Read more articles by Nikki Delamotte.

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.
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