Students Engineering Parklets for Philadelphia Communities

"Are you saying that we're going to actually pitch our parklet design to the people who will be using it?"

That was a question from one of my engineering students, and an understandable one. My entire class of 15 upper schoolers had just received the following challenge: "How can we, as parklet designers and engineers, design a parklet that meets the needs of a specific community that doesn't currently have one?"

Parklets are public spaces for pedestrians that are permanently or seasonally installed in parking spaces. They connect seamlessly with sidewalks, and typically provide seating, shade, and other design elements that speak to the culture and needs of the specific neighborhood where they are located. When designed and placed thoughtfully, parklets encourage pedestrian traffic and can play a role in re-energizing commercial corridors. Even more fundamentally, they can help to stitch together communities that have been frayed by car-centric urban design patterns.

There are several parklets in Philadelphia, but many communities simply can't afford them because of their substantial design and building costs. That's why my co-teacher Heidi Hutchison and I charged our students with providing high quality, volunteer parklet design services to two of those communities: Parkside and Mt. Airy.

The Frank Shuman Solar Art Parklet on Torresdale Avenue in Philadelphia. Photo by Mural Arts.

Yet when we told our students that the culminating "deliverable" of the project would be a presentation of their final parklet designs, they initially found it hard to grasp that their audience would be the actual, real-life clients for those designs—the directors of the Community Development Corporations from both neighborhoods. If that wasn't enough pressure, we invited several other interested parties, including the transportation planner from Philadelphia's Streets Department, two of the city's district planners, and Friends Select's upper school director and head of school.

I guess it felt real—real enough for several students to ask me a few times, just to be sure: “Is this real?” I explained that they were going to do this job in the same way a professional design firm would: by applying a formal design process to the problem, and collaborating with their client to arrive at a design solution that meets their needs.

"And … are they going to actually build the parklets we design?!"

"That," I said, "depends on a lot of things outside of our direct control. But these clients do actually want parklets, and you are in a position to provide a large chunk of the solution to that problem."

3D model of one student team's "Mirror World" parklet for Mt. Airy's Germantown Avenue corridor.

With that, they broke up into four teams and set to work. Over a two-month period, they researched the histories and cultures of Parkside and Mt. Airy. They met with folks who already had parklets, and set up interviews with the District Planners and Community Development Corporation representatives. They read through the 100-page, 15-year District Plans for those regions of the city. Finally, and critically, they visited the neighborhoods to walk around, chat with locals, and experience the spaces and communities personally.

Along the way, they sharpened up their professional email writing skills and learned how to plan and conduct empathy interviews, productively brainstorm as a group, create Scrum boards to schedule and track their tasks, create 3D models of their designs on their computers, and even figure out how to calculate the lumber sizes and spacing necessary to build a platform that could support 100 lbs/square foot—all while taking turns serving as the project manager for their team and doing their best to keep everyone unblocked and focused on the work to be done.

Another team's parklet design for Mt. Airy.

The scope of the project was daunting. Each client had specific needs that the parklet had to meet, in addition to the city's own guidelines and requirements for legality and safety. Satisfying so many design goals within the project's tight constraints was challenging, particularly when the students had to make those difficult choices collaboratively and under time pressure. And of course, countless things went wrong: interview subjects went on vacation, our class periods got preempted or cancelled for various reasons, video calls wouldn't connect, teammates were absent due to illness, and so on. Over and over, the students suffered unexpected setbacks as time marched them toward the date of the final presentation. It was, in short, everything you expect from a big project in the real world.

In spite of everything, the engineering class rose to meet the challenge. On the day of the final presentation, the clients and other guests gathered and chatted over coffee and donuts while the students frantically put the final touches on their materials. When the time came for them to pitch their designs, each team laid out a feast of ideas and illustrations, and then guided their audience through it all with clarity and poise.

They fielded questions, gratefully accepted feedback and suggestions, and sent each client home with posters and pamphlets summarizing what they had just seen. There was a palpable sense of excitement mixed with the students' obvious relief to be on the other side of it at last. I think the reality of the whole thing was finally hitting home: they had delivered a real product to a real client using little more than their own skills and hard work, and the client was pleased.

One of the CDC reps pulled me aside afterwards to ask me if I could email him the students' presentation materials. He wanted to put their designs in front of his community on social media, to start soliciting feedback and building up some excitement for moving forward on creating a parklet for his neighborhood. I told him the parklet designers would probably be happy to send him the materials.