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Climb, Jump, Leap, Imagine

Placemaking Principle #1: The community is the expert.

A once vacant lot in Roseland is transformed into a park that mimics the Swiss Alps. Photo credit: Demoiselle 2 Femme, NFP.

Can you really climb the Swiss Alps in Roseland? You can! Or, at least a ropes course modeled after them. You can find them near the intersection of 103rd and Wentworth Avenue on Chicago’s Far South Side. Last summer, a group of ten adolescent women transformed a vacant, trash-strewn lot nestled in between two storefront churches into a play lot featuring a ropes course that reflects the Swiss Alps. The play lot brings contrast to an area that is otherwise often neglected.

The young women responsible for transforming this space are part of the non-profit organization, Demoiselle 2 Femme (D2F), which provides holistic programs and services geared toward preparing adolescent women on Chicago’s Far South Side for the transition into adulthood. As part of the science and technology curriculum, the group’s focus is community transformation through design projects.  The girls participated in the Design and Build Boot Camp, where they learned that, when working on a community project, connecting to the broader community through engagement is just as important as good design.

D2F participants hear lessons from the community. Photo credit: Demoiselle 2 Femme, NFP.

The group was charged with the task of selecting a place in need of transformation along 103rd Street, raising awareness of issues that face the community, and using community engagement and design principles to transform it. The girls developed a number of tactics to learn what the community envisioned – they knocked on doors, created live twitter feeds and installed life-sized chalk boards where people could write their ideas for what the space could become. A play lot was in highest demand, and this wouldn’t be just any play lot, it would be modeled after the Swiss Alps, which are surrounded by conflicting countries, but are considered neutral territory – the neutral ground in this case, however, would be the play lot. Part of the curriculum for the project was to work with a Chicago-based architect to bring the design from a concept to reality. But before any building could take place, the site had to be cleaned up.

The young women attracted many spectators as they cleaned up the site. The local community was curious about what the team was doing, as the area has been better-known for people hanging out rather than taking care of it. That went for the larger lot across the street, too. But as the girls worked to clean up their lot, the people across the street, “those who haven’t discovered their purpose yet,” as T-awannda Piper of D2F put it, began to clean up their lot, too. “All of the sudden, the people across the street were out there with brooms, dust pans and garbage bags cleaning up their space.” Passersby found it fascinating to watch the young women working with power tools to recreate their space. As construction began, onlookers were eager to help – and they had skills to offer, too. Local community members helped cut wood, mix concrete, and continue cleaning up the site. The support was overwhelming. “Lots of people would walk by just to let us know they’d be coming back later to help.” T-awannda recalls, “It was like an open workshop for the community.”

D2F participant works with community volunteer to pour concrete. Photo credit: Demoiselle 2 Femme, NFP.

This project connects to Placemaking Principle #1: The community is the expert. By engaging Roseland residents at the onset, their needs and ideas shaped the project; and those same people came out to volunteer their time and continue to care for the lot. Months later, newfound pride for this lot continues to be evident in the way the park has been maintained. People put their trash where it belongs and have been respecting the area as a safe place for kids. To T-awannda “the work says, ‘hey, community, this is your space.’ It is truly a community transformation.”

The lot has become an asset to the community. Photo credit: Demoiselle 2 Femme, NFP.