Adrienne Gagnon co-founded nonprofit DownCity Design in 2009 to give community members a voice in conceiving of the spaces they use every day. The design studio and workshop is a hub of creative ideas and activity as youth and adults engage in architectural, graphic, and industrial design to rethink our shared environments. “We wanted to involve residents in making public places more welcoming, more functional, more playful,” says Gagnon. “And most importantly, we wanted people to recognize that they have the power to make positive change happen. We wanted to help people become change makers.”
Since opening, 3,000 participants have constructed more than 87 permanent amenities all over Providence (from Elmwood to Smith Hill, Federal Hill to downtown), and now, Gagnon and the industrious DownCity Design team are using their design prowess to build out a new spacious home on Cranston Street.
“Our future home will enable us to double our impact and dramatically expand the reach of our free community design programs for youth and adults,” Gagnon says of the 3,700-square-foot Community Design Center, which will encompass their offices, a classroom, maker workshop, technology lab, and an urban oasis in the courtyard for community events. Within walking distance from six schools, it’s ideal for students attending after-school programs.
The center approaches projects with a unique model of participatory public design, meaning decisions about civic spaces (especially in low-income and vulnerable parts of the city) are made by the people who dwell in those neighborhoods, who use the parks and gather outside in the community. So when Providence Public Library wanted to host public programs on their outdoor roof deck last summer, DownCity Design enlisted a team of 55 local teens to construct garden beds for immigrants to grow vegetables native to their homelands. “In just six weeks, our students designed, built, and installed a series of garden planters integrated with seating and storage,” Gagnon explains. “The design features beds of multiple heights, so gardeners of all ages can enjoy it.”
And in the process, students come away with valuable job skills, both practical and problem-solving. Says Gagnon, “Participants learn to internalize the design process as a way to better understand challenges, brainstorm possible solutions, incorporate feedback, and work through setbacks as they strive to change the status quo and imagine new possibilities for themselves and the world around them.”
Gagnon brings a background of working in RISD’s Architecture Department, Providence CityArts for Youth, and earning a 2013 RI Innovation Fellowship (for expanding design education in the state), though not unlike the nonprofit’s mission, she owes DownCity Design’s success to the collaborative efforts of many talented staff and educators – and dedicated students.
“I’m always inspired by the earnest energy that the teens we work with at DCD bring to the work of change making,” she says. “But this past year, I’ve also been inspired to see people of all ages adapt and evolve as they respond to new challenges and learn new ways of connecting and collaborating.”
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