Providence , RI

Contact Name
Adrienne Gagnon
Project Dates
September 2015 - June 2016
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2017
Design, Workforce Development
Providence Parks Project brought together over 75 Providence teens to imagine and build creative play structures for three of our city’s public parks. Through a collaboration with the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation, the Providence Office of Healthy Communities, and the Partnership for Providence Parks, the young designers in three of DownCity Design’s free in-school and after-school youth programs worked together throughout the 2015-16 school year to design and build imaginative play and exercise structures for public parks in our capital city’s most socio-economically challenged neighborhoods. Through this process, participating teens came to see themselves as powerful agents of change who know how to work together to improve their community.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
A major goal of the Providence Parks Project was to help advance neighborhood revitalization efforts and improve health outcomes by creating spaces for active outdoor play in these neighborhoods. According to Ellen Cynar of the Healthy Communities Office, “the City of Providence’s extremely high chronic disease burden, along with significant racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities, predispose Providence youth to an increased risk of premature death, reduced quality of life and very high medical costs.” According to the RI Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 38% of Hispanic and 32% of Black teens (most of whom reside in Providence) are overweight or obese compared to 24% of non-Hispanic White teens. The RI Dept of Health finds that over 60% of Black adults and youth in RI are less physically active than the recommended minutes per week; 43% of non-Hispanic Black and 38% of Hispanic youth watch more than 3 hours of TV per day. In the South Side and West End (the lowest-income Providence neighborhoods), hypertension, obesity and diabetes are priority focus areas; 34% of adults in these areas have high blood pressure and 11% have diabetes.

The public parks selected for this project had seen an increase in negative uses like gang activity, drug use and violence. In addition to promoting exercise and outdoor play, our goal was to create more opportunities for positive use of the space by children and their families, in order to shift the dynamic within these neighborhoods and promote safety and community.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Initially, we imagined that fostering Healthy Communities through projects in our parks would encompass youth and adult activities. In addition to play structures, we imagined information kiosks, exercise tracks, and social gathering spots for all ages. As our students interviewed neighborhood residents and Parks Dept officials, though, they decided they wanted to focus their efforts on creating projects for young children. Their hope was that by enticing youth to the parks, they would help create healthy, active young people who would be life-long supporters of the parks.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Our major partner in this project was the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation. Wendy Nilsson, Superintendent of Parks, and Deputy Superintendent Brian Byrne, saw the potential of this initiative to model change from within a community. They were excited by the potential of this effort to empower young people to become change-makers, and stewards of public parks. They shared a list of public parks in need of attention and improvement, and assisted with selection of our sites. In the early stages of the process, our young designers interviewed them to learn more about their approach to creative placemaking within our parks, and the needs of these particular parks. Brian Byrne, a licensed Playground Safety Inspector, shared relevant building code with our teen designers, and reviewed their plans several times to provide feedback and ensure that the structures would be structurally sound and safe. We also partnered with the Providence Office of Healthy Communities, and the Partnership for Providence Parks, who assisted us by providing data on park usage and helped to rally volunteers to assist with project completion.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The City of Providence recognizes the value of our city's green spaces as places of respite, community gathering, exercise, and play. The mayor's office has created several new programs aimed at activating and programming these spaces, along with our community rec center facilities. The Providence Parks Department is under-resourced, and have been developing new strategies to work creatively with limited resources. They achieve this through creative partnerships and volunteer Friends groups, and they saw these projects as an opportunity to build ownership of the selected park sites within their neighborhoods and generate long-term stewardship. They are also working hard to use fewer "off-the-shelf" plastic play structures, which are expensive, difficult to maintain, and not environmentally friendly. The Parks Department appreciated DownCity Design's use of natural and reclaimed materials wherever possible, in order to work toward a more sustainable future for our parks.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Under the guidance of our Design Educators, student participants went through a rigorous design process; they interviewed community stake holders, identified the parks’ need for play structures to engage local children, designed and modeled possible solutions, presented plans to city officials for approval, and then built the projects in the spring. Below are highlights from the process at each site:

Ellery Street Park
A group of 16 teens from the MET School in Providence participated in a year-long Design/Build studio at DownCity Design as a long-term internship experience. They came together twice weekly on Tuesday and Thursdays from 9:30-1:30 over the course of 24 weeks, for a total program time of 192 hours. This group was commissioned to design and build a new amenity for Ellery Street Park, a small park on the west side with few existing amenities aside from a basketball court and neglected sandbox.

The team spent the fall semester exploring the park to get a sense of its current needs and challenges. They organized an event for neighborhood families at the nearby West Side Play Space, at which they collected information about what residents would like to see happening in the park. Given the high number of young children in the neighborhood, the group decided to design and build a play structure for children ages 5-10 that would encourage active and imaginative play. They spent the remainder of the fall and winter drawing and building scale models demonstrating their ideas. They presented these ideas to the Providence Parks Superintendent Wendy Nilsson and Deputy Superintendent Brian Byrne, who provided useful feedback about playground codes and park usage.

Their final design involves a series of linked play decks, with fun challenges like a high-visibility tunnel and a series of tree stump climbers. The team spent three months this spring learning to safely use power tools, dig and pour concrete footings, and assemble decking in order to build and install their project on-site in the park. The group showed great growth in skills, including problem-solving, communication, and collaboration skills, as well as key math, science, and workforce readiness skills. Students finished building the structure on June 30th and the Providence Parks Department organized a public unveiling and ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Elorza.

Warren Street Park
Our free, open-enrollment after-school program for teens at DownCity Design, called DownCity Designers, brought together a total of 23 Providence youth between the ages of 14-18 throughout the 2015-16 school year, for a total of 96 program hours. Students came from Classical High School, Juanita Sanchez Education Complex, Hope High, PCTA, and Roosevelt Academy for International Students. Seven students earned high school elective credit for their participation.

The client for this program was Warren Street Park, a tiny park tucked away on the West Side that reputedly had become a gathering spot for gang members. The Providence Parks Dept. asked our group to design and build something for this park that would shift the population using the park and encourage positive uses.

Here, too, the group decided to create a creative play structure. This structure is imaginative and fun, with a spiral plan that incorporates balance beams, steps, a net climber, and a wavy walk-way. Like the MET group, the DownCity Designers met multiple times over the course of the year with Brian Byrne and Wendy Nilsson to create a final product that would be safe, attractive, and fun. Construction was completed by June 30th, 2016 and the play structure immediately attracted groups of playing children from the surrounding neighborhood to the park.

Joslin Park
The Parks Department invited participants in DownCity Design’s after-school program through the Providence After School Alliance at Del Sesto Middle School to create a water feature for a brand-new water park at Joslin Park, which opened this summer.
The middle school designers thought about symbolic structures that could represent RI and work well in a water-themed park. They decided to construct a small-scale lighthouse and an interactive boat that kids could play inside. They finalized their designs, with Parks Dept. approval, in March, and spent April and May constructing the structures.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Our design process has been refined over the 8 years that DownCity Design has been engaging youth in design-build projects. We have included more opportunities for authentic community engagement and participation in the process, including focus groups and design reviews. As mentioned above, we have also created more rigorous review checkpoints with structural engineers and construction experts prior to and during construction.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The partnership with the Parks Department was key the projects’ success and introduced students to the Parks Department’s many resources and tools as well as their building codes, restrictions, and challenges. Working with the Dept. of Parks and Rec. gave students the unique opportunity to build in public spaces in their neighborhood.

Our partnership with this important city agency also presented us with a number of new challenges. One challenge presented by these projects was the necessity of approvals from several different municipal agencies and private organizations with a stake in these highly public sites. We were careful to involve representatives from community organizations in the process, alongside representatives from each of the relevant city agencies. Our young designers and design educators also had to learn to work within the constraints of the building codes that ensure playground safety.

These challenges lengthened the design/build process because every step required many levels of review and approval. While this was an incredibly rich learning experience for our students, it unfortunately meant that the ribbon-cutting events for these projects were not held before the end of our spring youth programs. However, these challenges also gave students valuable real world experience of the logistical complexities of construction projects. DownCity Design has learned a great deal from these challenges and is working to implement systems such as a Construction Advisory Board to make the process more streamlined in the future.

Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
In addition to the excellent guidance and expertise of Deputy Superintendent of Parks Brian Byrne, we relied on the assistance of a structural engineer who provided pro bono guidance on our students' construction documents. We were also fortunate that board member Aaron Brode, who runs his own design/build business, provided on-site guidance and troubleshooting during the construction process. The good relationships we had fostered in the Providence Permit Office also helped us to shepherd this process as smoothly as possible.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
- Community input is key. Take time to build relationships with community members who can serve as ambassadors. Plan an information-gathering session at the park and invite neighborhood residents to come share food and ideas.

- Build a team of construction advisors and engineers prior to beginning the design phase, and bring them in regularly to meet with the design team

- Think about planning a volunteer build day in which community members and neighbors come together to help complete the project.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Thanks to the efforts of our young designers, three run-down public parks now have attractive new amenities that will encourage active, imaginative outdoor play and exercise.

In addition to the physical improvements to these parks, the program had a deep impact on the participants themselves. At DownCity Design, teens are trained to think like designers, and develop key habits of mind for success in school and beyond, including 21st century skills like creative problem solving, collaboration, and effective visual and verbal communication. Our participants enjoy solving real-world problems and creating tangible products they can feel proud of. And because they care about their work with DCD, they seamlessly learn the necessary math, science and English language skills that they may struggle to master in school.

DownCity Design programs improve quality of life by bringing amenities to our poorest neighborhoods, offer valuable workforce development and academic skills to Providence youth, and help young people take pride in and ownership of their communities.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
While it is too soon to tell if these projects will impact health outcomes in their neighborhoods, each of the three parks projects have contributed to the creation of a more welcoming space for kids and families. Neighborhood kids watched and helped out as our teen designers created and installed their projects, and these children immediately took ownership of the structures, finding ways to play with them that our group never imagined. We watched in awe as one eight-year-old boy used the Warren Street Play Structure for an elaborate parkour performance, including a gasp-inducing leap from the central column.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We plan to conduct a neighborhood survey this spring, in partnership with the Providence Healthy Communities Office, to learn more about how these projects have impacted the communities they are sited within. We measured the growth of our student participants through surveys, which revealed that they had improved their leadership, communication, and collaboration skills dramatically.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Our successful partnership with the Parks Department has inspired other local government agencies to want to partner with DownCIty Design, as well. This year, thanks in large part to the success of that project, we are partnering with the Providence Public School District on a similar initiative that will focus on projects for Providence schools and schoolyards.
CCX Workshop Handout