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Public workshop: 3 lessons for integrating youth into community design

The Philadelphia, USA based Public Workshop company empowers young people to have a voice in civic processes and to be active members of their communities, with projects that directly affect them, such as park revitalisations, design-build playgrounds, and initiatives for redesigning public spaces. By actively seeking input from the next generation, Public Workshop hopes to not only instil a sense of civic responsibility, but also to change how and where education takes place (Public Workshop, 2016).

One of Public Workshop’s most notable projects was the construction of an adventure playground in Philadelphia. After winning the U.S Green Building Council’s Greenbuild Legacy Project grant in the spring of 2012, Public Workshop collaborated with community organisations, volunteers, children, and adults towards the design and construction of the playground (Public Workshop, 2013).

Adventure playground

Like other adventure playgrounds, the project in Philadelphia involves many loose parts and risky play, with children using real tools, like hammers, nails, and saws to build their own play structures. Aside from teaching children autonomy and a sense of leadership, the project received support from the business community in the form of financial and material donations.

In 2012, Public Workshop began a project, named Tiny WPA that worked on design-build community improvement projects (Tiny WPA, 2016). Due to its popularity, Tiny WPA has since evolved into a Philadelphia based non-profit organisation that works with youth and adults on bettering schools, public space, and micro-infrastructure. Tiny WPA has worked in cities across the country with projects that include designing artistic bus stops, building neighbourhood picnic tables, and reimagining school spaces.

In Tiny WPA’s Vacant Lot project, young people and other community members work together to repurpose vacant spaces in ways that unite the community and reactivate public space. Through such projects, Tiny WPA’s main goal is to build a sense of place and improve communities’ social cohesion and resilience.

Inclusive design

Public Workshop’s approach supports three important means of generating youth agents for social change:

  1. Provide meaningful and age-relevant opportunities for community change
  2. Provide opportunities for risk-taking and action, where youth contribute tangible and visible outcomes to the community
  3. Provide an environment that empowers young people to be leaders and voices for change – in a forum where youth, adults, and community leaders can work together and learn from each other

As cities become increasingly dense, innovative approaches for creating inclusive public space become critical. Young people have much to contribute to these processes (Derr and Tarantini, 2016). Public Workshop provides an impressive and inspiring model for inclusive processes and socially just urban development.

Authors: Joanna Mendoza and Victoria Derr

Photo Credit: Photo by Barney Moss


Derr, V. and E. Tarantini. 2016. “Because we are all people”: outcomes and reflections from young people’s participation in the planning and design of child-friendly public spaces, Local Environment.

Tiny WPA. 2016. Say Hello to Tiny WPA. Accessed March 5, 2016 from

Public Workshop. 2016. Public Workshop: A Cheerleader of Possibility. Accessed March 5, 2016 from

Public Workshop. 2013. An Adventure Playspace Designed + Built by Philly Youth, The USGBC Greenbuild Legacy Project. Accessed March 5, 2016 from:

Author: Victoria Derr

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