Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“It looks like it doesn’t know what it wants to be.” “It’s boring, cold.” “Too gray.” These aren’t critics trashing an art show, but local middle schoolers assessing a flawed park in downtown Washington.

Renowned postmodern architect Robert Venturi and landscape architect George Patton designed Freedom Plaza in the late 1970s as part of a larger plan to improve Pennsylvania Avenue—a job that is still ongoing.

Like a lot of postmodern designs, the plaza rests on a clever conceit. Dark gray and white paving stones set on the plaza floor form a pattern that is actually a copy of part of L’Enfant’s famous plan of Washington. There are even panels of grass to represent the Mall and the Ellipse. It’s a plan-within-a-plan, an abstract representation of the city within the real thing: Get it?

But when eighth-graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School spent time in the plaza, they noticed some problems.

The city plan and quotations carved into the paving don’t read well on the ground. The skateboarders who flock to the plaza annoy other visitors with the clacking of their boards on the stone. Water rarely flows from the fountain.

Most of all, there’s no focal point and nothing to do. So people tend to cut across the plaza rather than linger on its bare expanse.

“There’s nothing that keeps you there,” says middle school student Kaiya Cephas.

Cephas and her classmates studied Freedom Plaza in depth this fall. They visited the park, sketched it, and interviewed people visiting it. Back at school in NoMa, they learned about the democratic tradition of public space that stretches back to ancient Greece and Rome.  

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Then some of the students designed public art for the plaza while others reimagined the whole space. On Dec. 2, they presented their designs to panels of experts in architecture and urban planning, pointing to specific features on their graph paper drawings mounted on posterboard.

It turns out 13- and 14-year-olds are full of good ideas about how public space can serve citizens better.

Some offered practical, low-cost fixes in their redesigns. Shane Jones wanted to turn the fountain back on and use lighting to set off the quotes. “At nighttime, the lights would turn on, and everybody would notice [them] more.” Gavin Seiden, observing that the plaza was a popular space for political rallies and other large events, put a stage at the east end of his drawing and moved the fountain to the middle, replacing the broken fountain on the western edge with a small garden. He also added a small cafe and a public bathroom, an amenity that would be appreciated on this tourist-rich stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue.

More boldly, Nyah Barrett suggested installing two rows of large sculptures representing the different cultures of the world. They would be in the middle of the plaza,  and inscribed with the words “Hear me” in multiple languages. She hoped they would bring people of different backgrounds together. “My design connects the most to the Baths of Caracalla, which is located in Rome. … They displayed art, and people went there to socialize,” she said.  

Cora Nevel proposed putting large models of the White House and Capitol in the plaza and letting people write on them or drop postcards into them. Kaiya Cephas found a way to address one of D.C.’s most pressing social problems by including housing for the homeless in her scheme. Interestingly, both of these ideas have precedents. Models of the White House and Capitol were part of Venturi’s original design but were never installed. And the plaza has been lived in (or on) before—in 2011 Occupy D.C. protesters set up a tent city there.

Responding to the presentations, panelists were generous but pushed the students to think on their feet—not unlike a “crit” in architecture school. How would they maintain the design once it was built? What if their opportunities for public expression enabled hate speech or vandalism? Is art really enough to unite people who don’t speak the same language?

After the presentations, the panel selected several winners who will present their ideas to the National Capital Planning Commission on Dec. 20.  

Social studies teacher Jill Clark started the urban design project at Two Rivers five years ago. She saw it as a way to make the study of ancient civilizations more tangible for 21st-century teens. Athenian democracy may seem distant today, but public spaces in Washington can help kids grasp the role of the Greek agora. In past years, eighth graders have designed new parks for NoMA and drawn up plans for reusing the RFK stadium site.

This year’s project coincided with the presidential election. Discussions about public space, free speech, and democracy took on personal significance, and Clark encouraged students to respond to the election in their work. Several of their designs prioritized individual expression through message walls, Post-It notes, and other means.

Two Rivers has a racially mixed student body drawn from all over the District. That makes it more diverse than most architecture and urban planning firms in the United States. A paltry 2 percent of licensed architects are black. Less than 30 percent are female. In a 2013 survey, only 16 percent of members of the American Planning Association identified as racial minorities.

The demographic narrowness of the design professions appears in the physical city at every scale, from bus stops with poor lighting (women are more apt to feel vulnerable in public spaces) to the fact that nonwhite communities are exposed to pollution at a disproportionate rate.

There have been some local initiatives to address design’s “pipeline problem.” The Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast was the first public high school in the U.S. to offer both college-prep courses and vocational education in design and construction. The Academy of Construction and Design at IDEA Public Charter School teaches architecture as well as trade skills, and the National Building Museum offers a design apprenticeship for teens.

Two Rivers’ annual urban-design project is rolled into the eighth-grade social studies curriculum and doesn’t require special teachers or facilities. That makes it ripe for adoption by other schools. But it does take a major investment of time, Clark notes. She and her colleagues, Mo Thomas and Shannon Kelley, invite experts with specialties as varied as landscape architecture and transportation planning to provide feedback on students’ first drafts and to sit on panels. 

“Every year, a significant proportion of our panelists and professionals giving feedback are people of color working in this field,” Clark says. “Kids do see people who look like them doing this work.” Maybe some of them will, too, one day.  

“[How] kids connect to the ancient world is—my kids really identify as residents of D.C.,” Clark adds. “It’s nice to ground them in something you can see or imagine, and they can access the bigger connections.”