Community-Led Design in Lawrence Heights by Josh Reiniger / by Sustainable

Over the course of a month, Sustainable was able to participate in engaging and training youth in basic architectural principles with the purpose of creating a community- led design of a kiosk and information board in the heart of the Lawrence Heights community. Students age 12-19 participated in the design course twice-weekly for a month to developed ideas around architecture and community building. We were honoured to be a part of a team led by Elena Korniakova, Executive Director of the Lawrence Heights Arts Centreand Joy Smith-Brown, Youth Leadership and Engagement Worker from the North York Community House. 

Some Background

Lawrence Heights is the largest public housing community in Toronto. Its proximity to (the then active) Downsview Airport necessitated the buildings be low to not interfere with air traffic. The results are similar to other mid-century public housing projects like Thorncliffe Park but with clusters of long, low building instead of high-rises. Similar to other neighbourhoods of this era, there is a massive redevelopment underway that will see the density tripled with 2/3rds of the units being market rate condos and apartments. The redevelopment will fundamentally change the fabric of the neighbourhood, in physical and emotional ways for residents. The idea is to improve conditions in the neighbourhood while adding more housing to a city that needs it. The unintended consequences of such a development can be that there is a loss of community in the midst of rapid change. 

How We Participated

We were part of a great team engaging youth to think about the community through design. We aimed to give the students the tools they needed to develop and design a kiosk, or a small structure that will display community art, information, and be a gathering place for the neighbourhood. This kiosk intends to be a small gesture to connect community in the midst of rapid change. 

 We started our time with the students with a discussion on the possibilities of kiosks, they are not just places to buy a phone in the mall. They can be what our collective creativity allows them to be. They were off, brainstorming and sketching ideas. Each student showed their individual ideas to the class. Next we collectively looked at the projects to pull out 5 themes that the students were most commonly using individually. Play, Seating, Adaptability, Gathering, and Sustainability. Fantastic, unprompted themes baked into their ideas because of their innate understanding of community building and what the neighbourhood needs. We used these themes to get everyone on the same page and push the project forward. 

 The next round of work, students again worked individually (albeit in a collective environment) to refine their design around these core concepts. Here things got a bit more technical. We took their designs and drew plans, elevations and created a physical model in scale. In some cases, we used tape to draw the size of the kiosk design on the floor to help imagine the project in reality. Once every student had fleshed their own idea out, we held presentations. Some designs focused on being open to the air, some were sheltered, some featured play features such swings or basketball hoops, some were sculptural and others structural. The students interpreted the themes in unique ways. A larger conversation around themes again took place, which led to grouping the projects into two. These two groups carried the projects on to the end. 

Left: The students’ individual models  Right: Student concept drawing

Left: The students’ individual models

Right: Student concept drawing


The Final Stage

Over the course of the next two weeks, classes revolved around working together to combine individual concepts into a single group project. Teams of four worked on concepts sketches, to-scale drawings, cardstock models, and some digital modeling. This process culminated in a presentation to a panel of professionals and community leaders to discuss their work and provide feedback to the students. Working architects, representatives from the City, and community members/family/friends all had a chance to engage with the students in formal and informal ways. 

The students design focused on creating an engaged public area, where residents will be attracted to hangout and learn about what is happening in their community. One project was open and sculptural with a focus on using water and art to attract people to the information on the board. The other was a shelter offering weather protected seating and views into the community. Located near a bus stop, the shelter would be a place people could rest, wait for transit and people watch. 

The presentations and panel discussion on the projects

The presentations and panel discussion on the projects

‘Island Chill’ shelter concept

‘Island Chill’ shelter concept

‘Flowing Art’ sculpture concept

‘Flowing Art’ sculpture concept

In Closing

The projects and their presentation not only built skills and understanding on the basic elements of architectural drawing but thought about the meaning of community and how they can create an impact. This got everyone in the room thinking differently about the possibilities in Lawrence Heights and beyond. Not only the people in the room are affected, any number of family and friends of everyone involved has heard about what happened throughout the summer program. This creates an informal web on invested community members at the grassroots level. That is the power of community-led design- gaining local knowledge and building community capacity through collaborative design of collective spaces. 

The student work will be exhibited in the coming weeks, check it out and be a part of the growing web of engaged citizens!

September 17-December, 1 2019 
511 Lawrence Ave West (Office of Marco Mendecino, Member of Parliament)

October 3, 2019
700 Lawrence Ave West (Lawrence Square Mall)