Sunday, March 17, 2013

Want to Create Family-Friendly Places? Get the Kids at the Table!

Children play on the Museum of Art and History's rooftop sculpture garden during a Placemaking workshop / Photo: Greg Larson
Children play on the Museum of Art and History’s rooftop sculpture garden during a Placemaking workshop / Photo: Greg Larson

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake changed the face of downtown Santa Cruz, damaging dozens of buildings and hobbling the local retail scene. The Cooper House, which had been a key public gathering space in this oceanfront city’s core, was ruined. When the site was re-developed, a larger building was placed along the street, and a smaller adjacent public space, Abbott Square, was tucked away in the middle of the block as a retail pass-through. The square never really became a real destination for downtown…but now, with the help of the adjacent Museum of Art and History, that may be about to change.

PPS’s Cynthia Nikitin and Priti Patel visited Santa Cruz recently to kick off a series of Placemaking workshops with the MAH, a cultural institution that has been re-inventing itself as a participatory community hub since bringing on Nina Simon (a past Citizen Placemaker interviewee) as director almost two years ago. The museum has outlined a new vision “to become a thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors have the opportunity to experience art, history, ideas, and culture.” To further that mission, the MAH is taking advantage of a 50-year lease on Abbott Square to bring the excitement within its walls out into the public realm, creating a great new destination for Santa Cruz.

Naturally, Nina and her staff brought the same innovative spirit that they’ve applied to exhibitions and events at the museum to the Placemaking Process. While hundreds of citizens and stakeholders participated in workshops and meetings over the course of several days, it was a children’s workshop organized in collaboration with one of the dads in the community, Greg Larson, that really showed off the museum’s capacity for thinking outside the box.

“The children’s workshop was exciting because it speaks to two things,” says Cynthia. “First, it showed that it’s not really far-fetched to think that kids can talk about public space and contribute really meaningfully to Placemaking. Kids have great imaginations, and they can look at an adult problem and think differently about what they want to do with it. Second, it highlighted the museum’s role as a community institution, as a creative and networked place, and so clearly spoke to that vision that the staff is working toward.”

"Kids have great imaginations, and they can look at an adult problem and think differently about what they want to do with it." / Photo: PPS
“Kids have great imaginations, and they can look at an adult problem and think differently about what they want to do with it.” / Photo: Greg Larson

One of the most exciting things about this unique component of the process in Santa Cruz was that it grew organically out of the museum’s public engagement efforts leading up to the workshop. “One of the things we’ve heard over and over again from people is that there’s no place for families to come downtown with their kids,” Nina explains. “When I ran into Greg, a museum member and manager for an adjacent town, I invited him to the Abbott Square workshop and he asked if he could bring his daughter. He runs a dads group, and offered to put together a family component to the workshop.”

Greg worked with the MAH’s Director of Community Programs, Stacey Garcia, to plan activities to engage local kids into the Placemaking process. On the day of the event, Greg and 25 local kids (aged five to 10) joined the adults in the opening presentation on Placemaking in the workshop led by Cynthia and Priti, before breaking off for a series of adventures and brainstorming activities. The first stop was Abbott Plaza itself, where everyone was encouraged to think about ideas for the space. “We told them, ‘Imagine you could have anything you want in this square, and got them to start sharing ideas while they were in the physical space,” Greg recalls.

Next, it was up to the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, where kids were encouraged to play on the art while considering what made the space fun, and thinking about what would make them want to come back. After that, they went back inside to do some more traditional group brainstorming, drawing their ideas on big sheets of butcher paper, and then sharing ideas with each other. Among the ideas generated were a theater space, Chinese lanterns, a giant slide, a maze, a chocolate fountain, a zipline, flowers, a climbing wall, a tunnel—even a replica of the Titanic!

Sharing ideas with the group / Photo: Greg Larson
Sharing ideas with the group / Photo: Greg Larson

The kids then voted on their favorites to select a few key “big ideas” to present to the grown-ups, and then spent some time coming up with three skits to act out during that presentation to illustrate their ideas for the climbing wall, maze, and tunnel. Once they were back with the adults, the skits proved to be a big hit. “The kids crawling around and over and under the tables in the room during their skits got the adults more engaged,” says Greg. “It was beyond theater in the round; the kids took the stage to the adults.”

True to form for an arts-friendly town like Santa Cruz, those adults were ready to play ball! Says Cynthia: “One of the dads worked with the city, and also teaches rope climbing, and it got him thinking, ‘You know, we could hook some guide wires between the buildings, and I could teach lessons in the plaza. It’s not that far-fetched.’ Kids wanted a zipline, and he was like, ‘You could do that, actually…’ These kids didn’t know to be cynical.”

In fact, the ideas were so well-received that, according to Nina, the kids’ contributions had a marked impact on the adults’ discussion. “You could tell that the adults really became the stewards of the kids’ ideas, in a sense. It re-oriented us to what it really means to create something that’s family-friendly.”

When you approach it the right way, Placemaking has the potential to bring out the kid in everyone. While priorities have to be determined and decisions have to be made, at the start, there is potential in every public space for an amazing new destination to emerge. Sharing freely and openly at the outset is key because, even if some of the more outlandish ideas won’t be feasible, they can help to set a tone and establish the kind of flexibility and open-mindedness that lead, ultimately, to stronger results.

“I think that the main takeaway was that it really is possible to engage kids in productive ways, parallel to adults, in a creative design process,” says Greg. “It’s important for it to be multi-modal, experiential, reflective, artistic, tactile. If there’s anything consistent to what the kids drew up, it was that the square and the art on the square needs to be engaging, or participatory as Nina would say, where they can touch it or interact with it, not simply observe it.”

We’ll be back in Santa Cruz next month. We’ll keep you posted as the new Abbott Square shapes up!

Click here to view a slideshow of the results of the kids' workshop!
Click here to view a slideshow of the results of the kids’ workshop!