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Bringing out a designer's ability to listen

“Nimble” is the word that best describes the volunteer team for North Light Community Center in Manayunk. Unexpected good news—a grant for play equipment from KaBoom!—changed the scope and timeline of their conceptual design for the center’s outdoor play space mere months into the project. The team rolled with the changes and also showed its collaborative spirit working with a diverse community task force and dual clients North Light Community Center (NLCC) and the Manayunk Development Corporation (MDC).

Architectural designer Katarina (Nina) Dudas of Holistic Habitat Design and landscape architectural designer Zachary (Zack) Cebenka of Viridian Landscape Studio were part of the volunteer team that gave NLCC and MDC a design strategy for combining play space with environmental education.

An interactive design process
“What the Collaborative’s design process brought out in me was the ability to listen,” says Nina. “That’s important with a diverse community trying to find the best solution.” The volunteer team met twice with a task force made up of NLCC program staff, maintenance staff, children, and parents; Manayunk residents; and executive directors Irene Madrak of NLCC  and Kay Sikora of MDC.

What the Collaborative’s design process brought out in me was the ability to listen.

Zack says, “Design is an easy tool for getting feedback [for example, using sticky notes to have stakeholders identify their favorite parts of a design]. It’s a tool for pushing process forward in a positive way… and not getting bogged down in constraints.”

Good listening extended to the volunteer team, which also included a registered landscape architect, a civil engineer, and a cost estimator. For Nina, working with the rest of the team sharpened her “ability to rethink one’s usual approach to incorporate other people’s view into design.” “Our interaction was really smooth,” she adds, “People coming to the Collaborative gravitate towards that kind of interdisciplinary process.”

A poem path, rain garden, and more
“Our goal was to integrate the improvements by KaBoom! into a cohesive story,” says Nina.  The main elements of the conceptual design are a poem path, a rain garden, a watershed education area, and embellishments to the existing chain link fence.

A painted path created from the words of the Shel Silverstein poem, Rain, weaves throughout the outdoor space. The poem “talks about two things—rain and learning,” says Nina. “These are two key words that describe the whole design. Joanne Schonfeld, the registered landscape architect on the volunteer team, found the poem and we decided to make it a design element.” Zack says, “It connects everything in a fun, educational way to get kids thinking. It’s also a tribute to a kid who was a big reader… it honors his memory.” He adds, “It was fun placing poem on the site… the changes from verse to verse respond to what’s actually happening on the site.”

It was fun placing poem on the site… the changes from verse to verse respond to what’s actually happening on the site.

At the entrance, the first verse begins, I open my eyes… look up at the sky as the path sweeps upward on the building. When the path reaches the boardwalk, the verse reads, I step away softly, I walk very slow…“It’s a paradox. It delineates the spaces and it connects them,” says Nina. “Everyone turned out to love it at the final task force meeting,” says Zack. In particular, Nina recalls the 7-year-old girl who came up to Zach after the presentation with a serious expression and said “thank you.”

 

The new play area built by KaBoom! left a roughly 20 foot wide strip of asphalt along the rear of the site. The new watershed education area should be located next to the play area, a low point within the gently sloping site.

A proposed rain garden and boardwalk along the play and education areas can provide a green place for quieter play next to the play equipment and a natural complement to the watershed education area. Dan Meier, the civil engineer on the team, worked out the best approach—a rain garden that will allow stormwater to infiltrate only 18 inches to avoid increasing pressure on the existing stone retaining wall along the rear of the play area. Low plantings and seating within the rain garden will make it easy to keep an eye on the entire play area. A mosaic channel taking water from rain barrels in the watershed education to the rain garden adds a whimsical touch. 

Finally, the team came up with an idea to cheaply and effectively improve the chain link fence topping the stone retaining wall by weaving the fence in places with a rainbow of ribbons loosely woven to catch the wind, billow, and wave.

Nina notes that the rain garden, boardwalk, and fencing “make the inaccessible, underused periphery into a learning and play space.” Zack adds, “The great thing is that it can be built by volunteers.” 

See our project profile for more images of the conceptual design for North Light Community Center and info about this Design Grant's location, donated services, and volunteer team. 

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