A Tutorial on the Streets

Students and teachers gain hands-on experience in a community-based design education program.

After three days of walking around downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street Mall, interviewing its residents, and examining its history, participants of the annual City of Neighborhoods program had come to a conclusion: it was time to move the party upstairs.

Organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the City of Neighborhoods program aims to introduce design thinking to young people by helping educators develop curriculum based on the built environment. The strength of the program, according to its instructors, is that it builds on and legitimates the universal experience of looking at architecture. Instructors hope to show that personal connections between sensory experience and place—say, the association of Grandma’s dining room with the smell of Thanksgiving dinner—can be extended into the public realm and used as a catalyst for change. “Getting people excited about the environment requires reaching them on an emotional level,” says workshop instructor Alex Gilliam.

Each year, the program heads to different neighborhoods throughout the country to provide on-site case studies for teachers and administrators; in addition, students from the selected area participate in City of Neighborhood’s after-school program to experience the design process firsthand. This past spring, New York City students examined the bustling Fulton Street Mall shopping area and generated a series of suggestions to improve the neighborhood. Their ideas, along with an accompanying ‘zine written and illustrated by the student participants, formed the basis of an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which hosted the program.

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In July, 24 educators from across the nation participated in a condensed version of the same curriculum, but in addition to exploring the built environment they developed lesson plans and activities that would allow their students to think about their own neighborhoods. After walking tours of the mall, talks with historians, workers and shoppers, and a series of reflection and brainstorming activities, participants split into groups to develop three-dimensional models of their proposals to improve the area.

Most groups suggested different ways to revitalize the abandoned upper levels of buildings, untouched due to the high costs of sacrificing retail space to upstairs access points. Group models demonstrated that second level spaces could be used as rest areas, community centers, or portals to private residences; access to higher floors could be made through skywalks or by converting complete building units into public spaces. One group proposed that businesses expand all the way to the top in the hopes that rooftop activities like movie screenings and dance parties would bring revenue to the stores below.

The emphasis on communal space and activities, coupled with an interest to keep both shoppers and storeowners comfortable in their spaces, reflects participants’ attempts to address the diverse concerns and cultures expressed to them over the three-day workshop. Fulton Street Mall is “caught between Junior’s cheesecake on the one hand and hip hop on the other,” according to workshop instructor Damon Rich, and some residents feel this discrepancy signals the neighborhood’s decline. Though past government projects have attempted to address this concern, other parties feel that Fulton Street Mall should be left to develop organically.

While the ultimate goal of City of Neighborhoods is to encourage design thinking within the classroom, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s participation in the program represents a larger effort to call attention to the positive aspects of neighborhoods like Fulton Street Mall. Participants discovered the complex relationship between design and civic engagement and workshop instructors encouraged their students to remember that preserving a place concerns not only its buildings but also its culture.

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