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A Design Opportunity: Building #OurCityOakland

Image © Douglas Wittnebel

On Feb. 4-6, residents in Oakland, Calif. (from children to adults) will be able to build the future design of the city. In an event that has taken place in cities across the United States, including Raleigh and San Francisco, the Our City festival is inviting Oaklanders to imagine, build, and celebrate the future of their community. To learn more about the Fair and how it can impact the future of planning and designing cities across the country, the GenslerOn editorial team interviewed Our City Co-Founders, Ray Boyle and Jake Levitas, and Gensler Oakland’s Design Director and Principal, Doug Wittnebel.

Hi Ray and Jake! Can you provide us with a brief background on Our City and the event that’s taking place in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 4-6?

RB: Our City is a nonprofit based in Oakland that works with cities everywhere. We work with residents, city agencies, companies and institutions to design, build and test new projects that improve our communities. We’ve worked with these cross-sector groups in Oakland, Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and San Francisco to reimagine what our public spaces can be when they are designed by, with, and for those who love their city the most—the people who live, work and play there every day.

Why the theme of Play?

RB: The theme of the Our City Oakland Fair is “Play” —a need identified by and with community partners—and each of the project teams seeks to provide Oakland kids, families, residents and visitors with new ways to play in the city. According to national nonprofit KaBOOM!, only one in four adolescents get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity or active play per day, with the number of younger kids only slightly higher. Studies show that access to play is important for mental and physical health, as well as development of critical skills like collaboration, problem-solving and empathy that youth need to succeed.

Why the city of Oakland?

RB: Oakland has a rich history of arts, culture, innovation and activism. This history is underscored by the fact that according to many measures, Oakland is the most diverse city in America. We have worked to ensure that the people, projects and organizations involved with the first Our City Fair reflect this diversity, and we are only going to deepen our commitment to this over time. We feel that Oakland can serve as an example to cities everywhere about how people of different backgrounds can come together to live, work, play and thrive. And, of course, we are proud to live and work in Oakland ourselves!

What can other cities learn from this type of event?

JL: Two of our core principles as an organization are learning by building and diversity first. We have found that bringing people of all walks of life together to build things can create new bonds and learnings through the creative process. We hope to continue to support this work in and across other cities as part of a broader movement to reimagine the role design and public space can play in city planning, decision making, problem solving and community building.

What are the goals of the event?

JL: There are three overarching goals, developed by the producing partners. They are to:

  1. Encourage residents and visitors of all ages to PLAY in new ways.
  2. Increase invitations for people to engage and socialize.
  3. Make Frank Ogawa Plaza, in front of Oakland’s City Hall, more welcoming to all populations.

Ultimately, the goal is to learn from how the public interacts with these temporary projects to guide the development of more permanent projects in Oakland and other cities.

How were the projects selected?

RB: In December, in partnership with the City of Oakland, we issued an open call for proposals for new installations and performances that addressed the theme. Any individual or team could apply as long as at least half of their members lived or worked in Oakland. Thirty submissions were received, from which 10 were selected to participate and receive funding stipends by a jury of local leaders in government, philanthropy, design and the arts.

Who is involved?

RB: For this type of work to succeed, it is essential that at its core it is supported by local stakeholders. That is why we are so excited to be working with such a wonderful group of leaders who support this type of work. The 50 Fund, the legacy fund of the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, Bank of the West, and the City of Oakland have demonstrated their commitment to creating cities that are inclusive, representative and playful.

JL: Other local community partners include ProArts, Uptown/Downtown Association and the James Irvine Foundation. Among the local organizations, designers and artists contributing projects to the event are industrial arts center The Crucible, The West Oakland Youth Center, Flux Foundation, Viscera Studio and Gensler’s Oakland office.

What can we expect to see there?

JL: The installations will include a pedal-powered musical organ, a human-scale wire-and-bead maze, an LED-lit multicultural playground and a life-size mancala board! There will be play structures, learning centers and all manner of experiences for kids and adults to explore.

Image © Douglas Wittnebel

Doug, we hear that the Gensler Oakland office is creating a project. What are Gensler’s goals for this project?

DW: Block by Block engages people off the street and asks them to participate in Oakland’s future on two levels. First, passersby will be encouraged to make a wish for Oakland’s future by writing a note on a wood block. This note could be a wish, a dream, a problem solved or a defining characteristic of Oakland, now or in the future. Second, the participant will be encouraged to consider the physical fabric of the city as they are prompted to place their wishing block, as if a scale model, on a platform painted with Oakland’s street grid. In placing their block they will have the choice to harmoniously add to what has come before, to be bold and different, to take a small part in a larger whole or to stand out as unique.

What does it look like?

DW: The setting for this playful experiment is a 10’ x 10’ wooden platform with two 10’ x 10’ walls. The two walls will be designed to imply Oakland’s skyline, and will contain the written prompts and tethered writing supplies. The platform’s floor surface will be painted with downtown Oakland’s street grid, and will be minimally raised from the surrounding ground. The Fair will open with a dense layer of precut wooden blocks arrayed on the platform, and end with a record of Oakland’s collective thoughts and dreams for the future.

How will it work?

DW: Over the course of three days children (and adults!) of all ages will have the chance to interact with Block by Block as they wish, sometimes complying with the prompts and having a bite sized impact, and possibly ignoring the prompts to change the ‘city’ in larger than life ways.

What will happen after the event?

DW: During the event, a camera will be used to record the building block constructions, and the written notes will be compiled at the close of the Our City fair. The resulting video and notes will be presented to the City’s ‘Plan Downtown’ team for potential inclusion into their in-progress Downtown planning effort.

RB: The goal is to find local support for these projects to be incubated into longer-term installations in Frank Ogawa Plaza, or locations throughout Oakland. We’re inviting community leaders across Oakland to join us for tours and events and meet the teams that are turning the Plaza into a place for people of all ages to play! We hope these connections lay a foundation for new collaborations across sectors and disciplines in public space.

What will the blocks look like?

Building block constructions for the Our City fair

Who else is on the Gensler team?

DW: Skanska will be joining the team and helping to make the wall and floor panels.

As a design professional, why is it important to empower citizens to help build their own cities?

DW: Ideally, all projects should have their users at the heart of the solutions. The success of an urban public project depends very much on how you engage the local community and listen to their needs and wishes. You need positive support from the community and strong relationships with citizens to build trust, and to extend the life of the project well beyond the timeframe of construction and realization. Listen, understand, develop ideas, discuss, present and lead the teams into action and positive results will ensue.

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