Harold Ickes Playground doesn’t look like much: a paved ballfield atop the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, surrounded by a chain-link fence., One of its closest neighbors is the Brooklyn Tesla dealership, and it is prone to winds off the waterfront. But to high school students from Red Hook Initiative’s youth organizing group, it was perfect.
Two years ago, they decided Red Hook needed a skate park—but without a location, the idea went nowhere. One year ago, they surveyed the parks in the neighborhood, and picked Harold Ickes as their spot. Having solved one problem, another reared its head: the build-out would cost $3 million, far more than the average participatory budgeting project.
“We went to [Councilman] Carlos Menchaca and asked him, What can we do to get the skate park funded?” says group member John Texidor, now 20. “He said he would be willing to give $1 million if participatory budgeting is willing to give $1M—[and then he’d go] to Brad Lander and ask him to give $1 million. All we have to do is get signatures to show that we want the park.” Texidor and his teenage compatriots eventually collected 800 signatures from their neighbors.
“They would ask, ‘What do we need a skate park for? We need a supermarket!’ They could be very close-minded about it,” says Texidor.” I had to explain to them it is not only for kids, it is for adults. It could be a hangout spot.”
At the beginning of November, Texidor, Menchaca, and Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin Maher all took a spin around the temporary “pump track” installed on Harold Ickes’s blacktop (already a 100 percent improvement), announcing the launch of the future BMX Bike and Skate Park, jointly funded by Menchaca, Lander, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “Harold Ickes Park will get a skate park because of Red Hook youth leadership,” Menchaca told the Brooklyn Paper.
The details of the design are still in progress, but Texidor imagines ramps and rails, along with a bowl for the expert skaters that will have to be built above ground, given the park’s location atop the tunnel. “I hope half the park is for really expert people that know how to skateboard and the other half for kids.” Some shade would be nice, along water fountains and with stadium seating for those who just want to hang. A pass-through could become an oasis, albeit one made of hardscape.
The teens solved a problem—a city problem, but also a problem personal to them—because adults listened.
“I have come to define adults as deficient teens,” says Damon Rich, a planner, 2017 MacArthur Fellow and partner in Newark-based Hector. “Or adults are teens on autopilot. All the things that teens are endlessly diverted by, adults have learned to ignore.”
Rich knows the territory, having collaborated with teens on projects in New York City, Newark, and, most recently, Philadelphia. Supported by a federally funded summer youth employment program, and backed by the former Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, Hector took the teens on an urban research journey to figure out the future of 100-year-old Mifflin Square Park. The park, surrounded by an ever-more diverse low-rise immigrant neighborhood, had become a contested space, where it was difficult to find consensus about the best use of the park.
“What the group did was investigate the politics of parks in Philadelphia: who makes decisions, who maintains the parks, who is in charge if something goes wrong,” Rich says. “We did interviews with the councilman and the head of stewardship for the park system,” creating “this roving band of eccentric ambassadors.” The product of their research was large-scale, Bruegel-esque drawings, on which the students illustrated the park as it is and as it should be, touring different constituent groups through the concerns and experiences of their neighbors.
They also illustrated moments when they, as teens, were being talked down to: “The head of stewardship for the park system had a very polite and reasonable argument for why we can’t have unlicensed vending, but the students really picked up on that as a patronizing and race-based understanding of this problem. One of them did a drawing of a Cambodian vendor and an Italian grandma doing something and one of them being completely undisturbed,” Rich says. “The drawings raised the possibility of there being worthwhile and interesting design that grows out of work that is wild, complex, conflicted, threatened but also exuberant.”
The idea of using teenagers as planners isn’t exclusive to Hector, or even new. This summer, the Chicago Architecture Foundation published the graphic novel No Small Plans, intended as an update to the 1911 Wacker Manual, distributed to all Chicago eighth-graders until the 1930s as a primer on planning. Chicago’s leaders surmised that there was no way to make over their city for the 20th century without buy-in from an educated public. Through illustrated scenarios from Chicago’s past, present and future, the graphic novel shows teens as protagonists in shaping the city, not just victims of adult decisions. In an imagined 2211, teenagers sit on the City Planning Council.
Back in the 21st century, Chicago firm Landon Bone Baker Architects has since 2010 been running a summer Labs program, providing paid internships for city high school students to work in their office. The students’ assignment is linked to one of the firm’s projects that’s underway, often in affordable housing, so that they will be able to see the result of their work in the real world.
While tagging and measuring trees, for example, students ended up talking to neighbors who were anti-arborists, complaining that lack of maintenance made the branches and leaves hazardous to houses and cars. Students noticed trash around a school and, as part of the program, spoke to the local alderman. “He told them, I could put trash cans out here, but I don’t have the funds to empty them,” says Catherine Baker, a principal at LBBA. “One thing we learned was that a lot of students didn’t go out due to safety concerns. They went to school and they went home. They find a voice when they are observing and commenting, and they were able to tell the alderman what they are seeing.”
The firm also runs an after-school program where, last spring, the group came up with a concept design for an outdoor lot adjacent to the After School Matters building. “What teens want is places to hang out, with benches and tables, maybe a basketball court and green areas,” says Tess Landon, program coordinator for LBBA Labs. But what might happen in the space after dark? Or if adults take over? “They start to see space is complex,” says Baker. “You can make it safe, but how do you do that not behind fences or locked gates? They see what works in terms of visibility, and start to analyze their own neighborhoods” as well as come up with different strategies, like green fences, that provide privacy without closing off a park entirely.
Architect Helen Slade, executive director of Chicago not-for-profit Territory, takes a design-build approach to harnessing the knowledge of teens. This spring, as part of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Make Way for People initiative, a People Spot, designed and constructed by adolescent volunteers (with adult signoff) will be assembled on the site of two parking spots in Albany Park. “They heard that there were no safe spaces for people to relax and gather, which made it hard to get to know their neighbors,” Slade says. “They wanted to make teen-friendly but also all person-friendly socializing spaces.”
“I don’t think many people have ever said to them, Your idea can become a reality. They are expecting other people to tell them what to do.” But this time, they had to work it out for themselves, after learning some vocabulary.
To fill the time it takes to design, built, permit and install a project like the People Spot, Territory NFP has also asked participants to create walking tours, a la Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City, teaching them “planner terms” like “edge” and “node” and encouraging them to come up with their own verbiage with which to describe their neighborhood—and share it with others.
Language is also the crux of the new book The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, written by the partners at New York City-based Interboro. In it, Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca and Georgeen Theodore collect what Christopher Alexander would call patterns from the built environment. But while Alexander’s patterns were positive – a farmhouse kitchen here, an adventure playground there – Interboro’s are largely negative, presented as a dictionary-like 156-item list. Armrest, Apartment Size, Bouncer, Buzzer. This is design as deterrent, with the deployment of armrests on public benches to fend off homeless sleepers, as originally described in Mike Davis’s 1990 City of Quartz, as the ur-example.
I counted eight entries in the arsenal that specifically target teens: Age-Segregated Communities, which are allowed to block residents under the age of 18, are a singular amendment to the Fair Housing Act; Classical Music and Ultrasonic Noise are two different aural barriers used to shoo teens away from stores and seating areas—the first by boring them to death, the second by producing a mosquito-like buzzing that only young ears can hear. Youth Curfews keep teens off the streets at night, while Parental Escort Policies keep them out of the mall unless accompanied by an adult. No Loitering signs keep them from congregating, while Residents-Only Parks and disappearing basketball hoops keep them from playing.
Interboro partner Daniel D’Oca first became aware of the politics of public space as a teen himself, circa 1990, in Bergen County, New Jersey, when he protested a downtown loitering ordinance. “It didn’t make any sense, and it wasn’t even legal. I staged a protest but I was the only one who showed up.” For the latest issue of Harvard Design Magazine, titled Seventeen, Interboro created a dialogue between two staff attorneys in Sprinkleville trying (and failing) to define loitering by citing language from a variety of existing municipal codes. Most are circular, e.g. “a person is guilty of loitering when he: loiters.”
These are the exclusions that, implicitly or explicitly, projects to make teens planners are fighting against. By making themselves seen, and heard, teens light the time between childhood playground and adult responsibility and say, We are here.
Trying to draw a map of where teens could exist, in a hypothetical town deploying the whole arsenal, is both easy and difficult: home and school, with a direct line between the two. And yet I listened to a 2017 episode of the podcast Municipal Equation, on skateboarding, that featured the story of a teen who had the police called on him for skateboarding in his own driveway. The home, then, doesn’t necessarily include the yard.
The podcast focuses on the dialogue this incident opened up between Tracy Stallworth, the kid in the driveway, and Police Captain Jacques Gilbert, both of Apex, North Carolina. “Where can we skate?” Stallworth asked. “Let’s try to work something out,” the chief answered. The result was the Rodgers Family Skate Plaza, open 24 hours a day. As Peter Whitley, the programs director of the Tony Hawk Foundation notes in the podcast, kids today get mixed messages—they are told they should play outside, get involved in sports, be more active, and then pushed from spaces where they might do such things.
“The catalyst for most skate parks are ordinances that dish out a fine to kids skating,” Whitley told me. “Oceanside, California, is a coastal town with a lot of surf spots, north of San Diego. They have a no skateboarding ordinance in place for the downtown business community, but the boundary is gerrymandered. It’s right down the middle of the street in this zone, so nobody knows where they can skate. If you are nabbed for skateboarding, the ticket is $281.”
And while city councils may be willing to consider the idea of a skate park, there’s the issue of cash. The Tony Hawk Foundation gives cash grants to skate parks with approvals in hand, but also tries to help teens who come to them at the proposal stage get organized.
Whitley says,“When I started we had people who were out to get us, who were not just vicious to me, an adult, but to younger people coming to city council meetings for the first time. That fired me up, realizing these kids don’t have enough representation in these environments.”
“Anything having to do with teens is a real blind spot in architecture and planning,” says Anna Muessig, a project manager at Gehl. “Young people and families are often vocal user groups, but teens are in an in-between space, where they can’t just plop down at playgrounds.” Muessig, who is currently working on a public life study of San Francisco’s underutilized Civic Center, says that teens are also more tolerant both socially, of homeless people and drug use, both problems in that particular space, and spatially, as second-tier locations like highway overpasses have long been used for both official and informal skateparks.
A decade ago, skateparks also tended to be bounded, purpose-built environments that skaters nicknamed “exercise yards.” Today the boundaries are often more fluid, at least between a public park and the skate park. In Tacoma, rather than a 10,000-square-foot skatepark, the city built a few skate spots in a park and, in downtown Wright Park, made the semi-circular benches around the “sprayground” skateable with steel edges rather than defending them with steel knobs. In Emeryville, California, there’s a skate path, with bowls, bumps and rails spread out over a recreational corridor (provoked, it must be said, by the demolition of a DIY skate park).
These designs simulate the thrill of the streets where skateboarding began and, some skateboarders insist, it belongs. In Red Hook, the new park will stay connected to the city, and be protected by more eyes, because it will still serve as a pass-through for residents walking north.
Many of the teens’ suggestions, coast to coast, just seem like good sense for people of any age: seating, green space, recreation zonesclose to public transportation, an adult nearby should something happen (but not operating under a state of constant surveillance), longer and later hours. Teens are people too! These projects harness their energy, their ideas and their persuasive powers so that the education goes both ways: teens learn how to advocate for themselves on the city stage, adults learn what it is that a famously uncommunicative demographic needs.
I like Rich’s formulation of teenagers as a febrile, emotional version of adults, not yet disappeared inside a carapace of car, phone, job, gym. The skateboarders and the snackers, the watchers and the players are all alive to the built environment.