After-school Youth Enrichment: Urban Place Making through Social Impact Design
There has been a marked increase in the popularity, demand and federal and private funding for after-school enrichment programs over the past few decades, particularly in urban areas. Such programs are intended to prevent adverse outcomes, decrease risks, or improve functioning with at-risk youth in areas such as: academic achievement, crime and behavioral problems, socio-emotional functioning, and school engagement and attendance. At DLR Group, we care greatly about the impact of our work on these life changing spaces and places for the young participants.
We are learning much from a growing movement called social impact design, which encourages design professionals to use our unique skill sets to work alongside communities to bring about meaningful change. The main goals of social impact design align perfectly with our after-school youth enrichment work: aiming to improve society and the environment by balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the overall community. A main means to accomplish this is by actively including and giving voice to those who are typically underrepresented in shaping these community places and spaces.
In urban communities it isn’t enough to make beautiful projects: when we make the process highly inclusive, we obtain greater success for those who will most benefit. Social impact design grows from empathy for the needs of the people using the space. It is not a trend – it is a core tenet.
Spaces to absorb, act and show
After-school programs are ideal projects for utilizing this inclusionary process. Most typically fit into a few select categories such as:
- Sports activity programs
- Technology/vocation/career preparation
- Volunteering opportunities
- Artistic experiences
- Academic enrichment
- Outdoor adventure
Each program type has a different need. For example, one program in my city, Urban Boatbuilders, teaches vocational, social, and leadership skills to at-risk youth through boatbuilding projects. To contrast, this program has different space and equipment requirements than the Strong Fast Fit program at my neighborhood YWCA where the focus is on teaching wellness habits to young women.
Regardless of the type of program, all after-school programs should provide these three commonalities:
- Space to absorb: Absorbing spaces facilitate knowledge transfer either individually – creating a quiet reading nook for an academic enrichment program; or for collective knowledge transfer – erecting a set of bleachers next to a ball court.
- Space to act: Spaces to act are where youth get to explore a topic or activity. Again, this could range from placing a workbench for making robots, to siting a hiking trail at a park.
- Space to show: After-school programs should also include a space for show, where students are able to reflect on and present what they’ve learned or experienced. Consider an afterschool music program where auditorium space is needed. For youth doing community-based volunteering, there could be a storytelling wall showcasing before and after photos that help visualize and breathe life into their efforts.
Good designers can take any of these programs and create beautiful and functional spaces to absorb, act, and show. Great designers, however, use inclusive strategies in the process of creating these spaces and because of this participatory design experience, the community feels more ownership over the project, voices are given dignity, and the end product is more relevant to the needs of the users than any top-down design process could achieve.