Darren Cottman is the Adult/Teen Library Supervisor of the Blanche A. Nixon Branch/Cobbs Creek Branch of the Free Library. When Darren was offered the opportunity to involve his library in the Play Space Design Competition and to serve on an expert jury to choose the finalists, he made time in his crowded schedule to participate.
The Blanche A. Nixon Branch/Cobbs Creek Branch library is located on a leafy, pie-shaped site at Cobbs Creek Parkway and Baltimore Avenue. Over 4,000 patrons use it every month. Children are the library’s biggest users, drawn from several public and charter schools within walking distance. It’s a “safe haven when parents are at work,” says Darren.
The library is one of 25 Carnegie community libraries built throughout Philadelphia in the early 20th century. Inside, the library glows thanks to its large windows and hums with activity. Outside, it feels less approachable with formal marble steps that lead to the entrance and no places to gather or play.
“What we look like outside doesn’t match what’s inside,” says Darren. “I saw the design competition as an opportunity to take all that the library has to offer outside, to expand what we’re able to do. Play areas would support existing programming for health and fitness, like our Dance Dance Revolution nights and Lego Club. We could bring them outside.”
“What we look like outside doesn’t match what’s inside.”
Three steps to the Play Space Design Competition winners
The award winners of the Play Space Design Competition were selected in three steps. First, a jury of experts, which included Darren, pooled their knowledge to winnow the 40 entries down to nine finalists. Second, the people who use the sites on a regular basis were given the opportunity to view the finalist’s designs and cast their vote in a Community Choice ballot. Finally, an awards jury determined the ultimate winners following public presentations by the finalists.
Serving on the Expert Jury
Expert jurors with an understanding of the daily rhythms, shortcomings, and potential of the competition sites—like Darren—were essential. “I took out anything with structures blocking the front entrance, or that had too much apparatus around the building. I didn’t want people to forget the library was the library.”
He looked at the details too—maintenance, construction costs, and integration with nature. “We’re right in the heart of Cobbs Creek. We have a property that can engage community’s constituents. There is a real learning opportunity.”
Darren notes, “All three [finalists] gave the community access to the library.” The library is currently not accessible, and the librarians must refer people with disabilities to other branches.
“Discussion was vital to the choices we made [as a jury],” says Darren. “When I began, I knew it was going to be a lot. But when I saw what this could do for the community, I became excited.”
"When I saw what this could do for the community,
I became excited.”
The Community Choice voting helped others see the potential too. The designs from the finalists were on display at the library for two weeks spanning February and March. Those who wanted to dig deeper could see the full submissions.
“Me and staff members made fliers to distribute around the neighborhood to invite them to come vote. We did the footwork to get everyone in to have a say so,” Darren says.
"We did the footwork to get everyone in to have a say so."
Darren also delayed the opening of the library by an hour one afternoon to allow his staff to hear a presentation by the Collaborative about the three fiinalists, preparing them to address questions from library patrons over the following two weeks.
The designs were met with great enthusiasm. “The staff jumped right in. Our municipal guard really got into the process. He created a special backing to keep the boards propped up.” He had to curb some of that excitement: “Children got to vote only once. The ballot was right at my desk.”
Residents north and south of Baltimore Avenue differed on what landscape elements held special appeal. South of Baltimore, where more residents are over 65, voters favored quieter activities like chess tables. North of Baltimore, where more residents are families with children, it was “all about the playground.”
Darren noted only one bad moment in the Community Choice process. “A pair of twins chose different designs. I had to let one know that their choice didn’t win.”