urban acupuncture
with professor stefan gruber and everyone in the studio || spring 2019

In times of accelerated urban transformations and limited predictability, top-down design instruments like the masterplan have become ineffective in tackling many contemporary urban conditions. By contrast, this studio engages urban milieus inductively and seeks strategic points of design intervention that can contribute to the ongoing transformation of neighborhoods in a meaningful way. The studio expands architecture students’ repertoire, beyond designing buildings, to designing situations and events that promise to bring people together. Rather than obsessing over a final product, here design is explored as a tactical and performative tool for setting in motion a process of community engagement and supporting residents in shaping the environment they live in.

The Urban Collaboratory Studio partners with citizen initiatives for the revitalization of neighborhoods through co-design. In the Spring of 2019, the studio worked with Community Forge, an initiative transforming Wilkinsburg’s vacant Johnston Elementary School into a community center. Community Forge is committed to youth empowerment, community collaboration, organizational incubation and neighborhood wellbeing.

Rather than responding to a predefined design brief, the studio worked with Community Forge and the Wilkinsburg community on defining ideas and opportunities for activating the former schoolyard and strengthening connections between Community Forge and its surrounding context. In weekly participatory design workshops with youth, we helped re-envisioning the former school yard as a shared resource for the wider neighborhood. Within fifteen weeks, students went from exploring and analyzing the urban milieu of Wilkinsburg, to facilitating participatory design workshops with the community, to developing an overall urban design strategy for Community Forge’s outdoor spaces and implementing a strategic design intervention that promises to act as an urban catalyst for neighborhood revitalization—in short, urban acupuncture.

The resulting urban design framework proposes an archipelago of islands programmed for diverse activities to be implemented incrementally over time. Aiming at setting in motion a transformation, in the last few weeks of the semester, the studio together with volunteers realized the first island: an educational landscape with colorful games and sports fields. A second “play island” will be implemented this summer.

shariwa sharada