EE&K Architects Lead an Urban Design Workshop at PS 87

by Fran Rosenfeld

Second-grade students at P.S. 87, a 1,000-student public elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, recently participated in a hands-on workshop on urban design led by EE&K’s own Annisia Cialone and Michael Imranyi. As part of an on-going community out-reach process, Annisia and Michael visited the classroom of 26 students (average age: 8 years old) to talk about what architects and urban designers do – and to give the students an idea of what it would be like to design a neighborhood themselves.

They began with a brief slideshow illustrating the fundamentals of urban design, discussing with the students the concept of different programmatic uses – retail, residential, commercial, transit, parks – the optimal five-minute walking distance, and the overall question of what makes a great urban neighborhood. To get them thinking about how they might plan a new district elsewhere in New York, students were first shown an aerial view of their own neighborhood with PS 87 at the center. After the children pointed out all their familiar local landmarks – the school, local subway stops, the Natural History Museum, Central Park, Broadway and other big avenues, supermarkets, the pet shop, the pizza place, etc. – the group discussed what made their own neighborhood a good example of a walkable neighborhood.

Michael and Annisia next introduced the Arverne project to the class as an example of a EE&K project with many of the program elements the class had begun talking about: transit, residential, retail, street hierarchy, park, playground, schools, and the YMCA. They showed the class images of the original site plan for Arverne but with only the public mapped streets shown, and explained what kind of new neighborhood EE&K was asked by the client to create, leaving the architects’ final design blanked out.

The students then broke into small groups for a hands-on activity in which they used the Arverne site as a potential location for development. Each group was given a scaled foam-core base map with a different section of Arverne with only the public mapped streets shown and a sticky foam-core kit of parts of color-coded program elements like retail, residential, office, community (a school, museum, library or other community building), as well as green paper for park space and grey strips for streets. Each group also received a brief list of “zoning rules” for their block, such as the maximum allowable height for residences and the need to connect to major intersections and transit stops. A furious burst of activity followed as the budding urban designers wrestled to get down as much housing and parks as possible. While some were overzealous in their attempt to cover the site with streets, all were surprisingly cognizant of the need to maintain good access and sightlines to the oceanfront and the importance of placing schools near transit stops.

At the end of the session, Michael and Annisia fit the different four blocks together on the floor and the whole class gathered around to see what the total neighborhood looked like. Each group briefly explained their design to the rest of the class. Their work showed a grasp of some basic urban design ideas such as grouping different uses into districts, maintaining views through careful placement of buildings, and building neighborhoods around parks and public buildings. Critics were quick to point out, however, the need for more diverse retail uses including a candy store and a toy store.

Finally, the architects unveiled to the class the actual model that EE&K had produced for Arverne, and the group discussed the similarities and differences between the professionals’ planning decisions and their own. The students came away with a new understanding of the many factors that shape the growth of cities and how choices they make can affect life in the city. They had also begun to appreciate the art of working within a complex set of zoning rules – rules they had never confronted in their years of playing with blocks. Or, as the class put it in their thank you letter to Annisia and Michael: “We learned that architects can’t do whatever they want.”