Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

What “Engineering and Social Justice” pedagogies may have in common with Urban Studies

Hello and happy halfway point of the Urban Studies Fellowship period!

The last two weeks I’ve been sinking deep into the nitty gritty of a few design projects as well as bike building and other kinds of bamboo building, so much so that when it came time to write this post I felt like I suddenly woke up in a new reality, one that prodded me loudly and asked, “Wait, what have you done that is worth sharing on an Urban Studies blog? Why are you doing what you’re doing, again?” Very good question to be asking often, it turns out, because as with any task it becomes easy to lose sight of bigger pictures when you get immersed in your work.

This question is familiar to me from being in school. I had a late introduction to Urban Studies at the end of my sophomore year, at which point I was a Mechanical Engineering major, and since then I have been attempting to combine the two majors in an individually designed major in engineering. There is a constant need to justify the existence of this major to administrators, in other words to find and articulate the relevance of each discipline to the other. In the past year, I’ve not found so many instances of technical knowledge and practice from engineering classes translating in any significant way to the questions we ask in Urban Studies classes, but I have found so-called Urban Studies or social sciences questions important in interrogating the kind of engineering work that I, my peers, professors, and others in the area are engaging in, namely: What really is the agenda of this project? Who does it benefit, and who does it exclude? Should it be done in the first place? As a side note, the leaders of BBB come from Anthropology and English backgrounds and are constantly asking these questions of their work. Furthermore, they don’t consider any of the work they do as “engineering,” even though it would fit that label by some standard definitions of the discipline (as opposed to the profession.) I find the labels we use for technical design and manufacture work to be interesting (engineering vs maker vs DIY) in the context of this quote by Donna Riley from her series of lectures called “Engineering and Social Justice”:

“The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within. This book calls upon engineers to cultivate a passion for social justice and peace and to develop the skill and knowledge set needed to take practical action for change within the profession. Because many engineers do not receive education and training that support the kinds of critical thinking, reflective decision-making, and effective action necessary to achieve social change, engineers concerned with social justice can feel powerless and isolated as they remain complicit…”

Why would this be the status quo? I see value in comparing the engineering education process at BBB versus traditional engineering education in schools. (By engineering I’m specifically referring to mechanical, to avoid overgeneralizing.) In schools you learn the core curriculum first — one that establishes a base set of standardized knowledge that can lead to a certification, and one that Riley argues originated in and continues to be funded by the military and private defense contractors — and then you work on “real-life” projects, which often does mean a majority of job opportunities at defense contractors, if college job fairs are any indication. Once funneled into these systems of management, Riley argues, it is near impossible to question the nature of the work you are doing.

I see an opposite model at play at BBB, which essentially started with one person who wanted to teach others to build bamboo bikes so that they would love and feel ownership of their chosen form of urban transportation, and then built the necessary engineering skills around that goal. To me, it is significant that the organization makes a specific engineering education accessible to anyone who walks into the door, instead of keeping it gated in what is often seen as an elite field of knowledge. (Some might argue, What you’re doing isn’t engineering, it’s Making. And some magazines say about BBB, “It’s not exactly a Maker Space.” There’s contention over these terms, the low-down for me is that at BBB you design, you CAD, you manufacture, and you constantly refine the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process for multiple people. You need to use an intuitive rather than textbook understanding of materials, stress, and failure. So to me, for all intensive purposes, BBB is a kind of engineering education workshop.) Secondly, it truly is a site in which what we build is constantly being interrogated: who is it for? Are these the people we want to reach? If the answers to these questions don’t align with the mission statement, then the project is rejected. Much of this ability to question and be flexible obviously comes from the small size and structure of the organization, but it’s still been a valuable lesson in bringing some of Riley’s ideas about transforming engineering pedagogy to life, and much mirrors what I’ve seen done in Urban Studies classes.

More questions that have come out of this reading: How does the concept of social justice change in a Chinese versus U.S. context? What does urban mobility mean here versus the U.S.? I come across these questions as there is bountiful literature and language surrounding social justice, transportation justice, and urban mobility in the U.S., mostly concerned with centering the needs of those who have been most marginalized by the racially codified planning histories of U.S. cities. As Chinese cities formed out of very different planning policies and histories, there seems to be a much different language in the (academic) literature around just transport and mobility, namely that the words used are never “social justice” but “sustainability” and “social equity.” What does this difference tell us about what the important questions are to ask of Chinese cities’ mobility futures (and histories)? What is the starting point to identify these questions? Some food for thought, and if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!


measuring genius

Thanks for all the love on my last blog post! I don’t think I really fully stated my views, but that was a bit of catharsis that I definitely needed to start moving forward with my project. And, ironically, last week, I started assisting in the Bronx with our Urban Investigation. Christina, the teaching artist, is really awesome. She’s so different from the students, is probably the most amazing thing to me. Oftentimes, I think of teachers needing to relate. Christina has a background in fine art and performance art – she has a billion degrees and is off to Harvard to get another one in the fall. She’s both academic and artistic, and that blends to be a presence that is pretty different than our vivacious students. However, I feel like contrary to pushing them away, the contrast between them draws the students in. It’s been great to work with her.

Speaking of the students: they are truly, truly incredible. They are lively, engaged, hilarious, and outrageously creative. They are amazingly critical thinkers and leaders. I honestly think they are the most intelligent group of high school students I have ever worked with. And you know what? They all live in the Bronx. Some of them immigrated to the United States as recently as 2 months ago. Many of them are English Language Learners. And wow, are they incredible. In the past week, I have watched them create storyboards, produce a stop motion animation, conduct and film a professional interview, ask critical questions about race and inequality, and endlessly surprise the whole teaching team with new ideas and perspectives.

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editing their animation together on premiere.

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christina helping a group with steadying the camera.

kacey, daryl, and javi shooting their penguin transit puppet stop motion animation!

kacey, daryl, and javi shooting their penguin transit puppet stop motion animation!

We went on a field trip to Grand Central station on the third day of class. We barely even had to supervise them in Grand Central. Every group was on task, got through their visual scavenger hunt, and was back in our designated meeting spot right on time at 11:45am. This never happens. Students are never all back in the meeting spot on time. And yet, here they were!

On the train ride back, I had a lengthy conversation about inequality and success with two of the students, Deanna and Kacey. I was barely doing any educating. When Deanna mentioned that “successful” people were more capable of taking means of transport other than the subway, the thought had barely entered my mind to ask her to think more on her definition of “successful” when Kacey piped in to do just that and push back on societal standards of success. Like, what? It took me until my sophomore year of college to really start vigorously questioning my environment in the way that obviously has come so naturally to them out of their circumstance.

I find myself coming back to question the ways in which we measure the “achievement gap”. Before this summer, I often found myself still falling back into this type of deficit mindset often – seeking the ways in which students are underperforming to the standards. It is in those moments that I felt most uncomfortable at Stanford. Because at Stanford, I am shown statistics and pictures and graphs about how students of color are failing in every single one of my classes, every day, I have a moment where I think about how I can change them to better fit what these old folks want out of them.

One of my goals was to abandon this deficit mindset for good, and I think that my students in the Bronx have been essential in helping me do that. I know that when I am with my students, I do not see their failures. I do not see low test scores and the ways in which they are eternally not performing white enough. I see their triumphs and their resilience. I see the incredible amount of love and care in their homes, and the inhuman amount of work that their parents and other loving adult figures do to provide enough for them to succeed.

With my next three weeks with them, I can only hope I to give them even a fraction of the perspective that they have given me.

the jury is out (and they ain’t coming back)

As I mentioned in my bio & post from a few weeks ago, I’m working on my senior capstone project for Urban Studies concurrently with my internship at CUP. Here’s the abstract for my project so you can get a handle on the topic:

Monument to Change is a community-based project that seeks to empower youth through hands-on engagement in the investigation of their communities. The intended learning outcome of this project is to empower youth with the knowledge of how to create change in their communities through participation in the civic process. To accomplish this, students will investigate a mode of change and historically how change has been made and continues to be made in their spaces (both figuratively and literally), whether that be a neighborhood, their school, or more widely in their city.

After a few weeks of working on these projects, I’ve had to start thinking about my fundamental goals for the project and how my project differs structurally and idealistically from the CUP model.

At CUP, the teaching artists do most of the teaching on youth ed projects. The benefits of having an artist as a central part of the project is clear in the beautiful and amazingly educative materials that are produced through CUP projects. These tools make sure that the information lives on as a resource for students and teachers.

TA dillon & students from ichs on set of Now Boarding!

Some of these artists come into the program with teaching experience and that’s preferred, but some of them don’t have any teaching experience. I would pile myself into this category of untrained or informally trained educator, since I have not gone through a teacher training program. Because of this, the process of curriculum design and revision is pretty intense, and most of the revision is done by CUP staff. Christy, the Youth Ed program director, taught art for 10 years at a public high school, and is absolutely incredible. Her edits on the curriculum are invaluable, and her feedback to teaching artists after observation is truly transformative on their teaching. Urban Investigations are primarily after-school programs and the work is more centered on creativity and observation than critical content research. Because of this, paired with the strong mentorship and feedback mechanisms from CUP, I think that the use of a non-teacher educator works well in this context.

For my project, I’ll be teaching in a classroom during the normal school day, as part of a required academic class. My curriculum is based in a lot of critical content research and texts. And recently, I had to confront that some of the mechanisms for feedback and co-creation of curriculum that I had tried to establish at the onset of my project were now falling through. Now, that is an entirely different monumental can of worms.

There are some pretty strong views about classroom teachers in this country. There’s this widespread narrative that our teachers are failing our children in America. Many people who have watched Waiting for Superman think that our school system is failing because of the tenure system, and that the solution is to fire 80% of the ‘underperforming’ teacher workforce and hire new educators. Some people say that we should fill these vacancies via the Teach for America model, which says that with a strong undergraduate education, a few weeks of training, and bright youthful energy, you too(!) can be a great teacher. (Are my politics showing yet?) There’s an overwhelming narrative that teaching is something that anyone can do.

To me, herein lies the problem. Great teachers and those on track to become great teachers, have years of specialized training and education on teaching. They learn the complete pedagogy of teaching in their subject area – the ins and outs of what educative activities look like, fair assessments, how to structure a lesson plan, how to lead a discussion… the more I learn about teaching, the more amazed I am that I have had teachers who make it look effortless. They have a unique and specialized skill set, in the same way that other professionals do. Not just anyone can teach.

To put this in context, would someone let me function as a pediatrician before attending med school? Would I be able to practice law without passing the bar? And yet, I am let in front of our most malleable minds, to teach them how to see and exert their presence in the world, with basically no credential at all. In fact, people often applaud me for this act.

I am guilty. So why did I even embark on this whole thing in the first place?

I often call myself an ~educator~ in a really nebulous way when probed. Really, that’s my way of saying i have no idea what i’m doing but i guess i’m doing it anyway. It’s my way of dodging the question about what my presence as a 20-year-old-with-no-teaching-credential means when I’m in front of a classroom. For those of you tapping your chins, don’t worry – I, too, call this hypocrisy.

Here is my truth: we have textbooks that fail to illustrate the immigrant experience, that hide injustices under rhetoric of democracy, and conveniently leave out the ways in which the struggle is still ongoing, the ways in which the history in the text has shaped the experience of those reading it. If there is failure in our system, it is with standards of success that are rooted in systems of oppression and too often fail to prompt meaningful civic engagement in students after they leave school.

Justice. Empowerment. Resistance. Those are the values at the root of my project and at the root of what I believe makes an education go from useful to transformative. My students deserve to know how to stand up for themselves when they are denied their rights. They deserve to feel like they matter in the eyes of their government. Above all, my students deserve to know how to seek justice for themselves.

Despite how much I have thought through my impact, I understand that I still may do more harm than good. But so many teachers are overworked and underpaid. They have a million people to please, between parents, administration, and the ever critical public. Must they bear the complete burden of this as well? Maybe it’s my place to be the outsider who focuses on this issue and pushes, just a little bit, because I have been afforded the privilege to do so.

I don’t really know. The jury might always be out.

In the meantime, I’ll get to work.

Week 3 with a mini photo essay

We kept ourselves busy this third week by welcoming three new interns with a training week in which they got their hands busy immediately making their own bikes and painting our new space. I finished my own bike as well, pictured below, and we ended the week with a bike ride to the Zero-Carbon Pavilion, a space set up by the NRDC. They furnish their space with lots of bamboo products and decorations, so they invited us to check it out.

Bamboo bike #149

Biking through an alley just wide enough for bikes, on the way to the Zero Carbon Pavilion

Biking through an alley just wide enough for bikes, on the way to the Zero Carbon Pavilion

Inside the Zero Carbon Pavilion, designed by the NRDC

Inside the Zero Carbon Pavilion, designed by the NRDC. Lots of bamboo (flowerpots hanging over the window and ceiling decor)

Later I got to thinking about Beijing’s bicycle infrastructure. It’s really wonderful. Most of them are wide enough to fit a car (which is trouble when cars actually do use them for travel, but otherwise they fit many rows of cyclists), and are partitioned off from the streets with metal fences that can double as places to lock bikes, or by raised platforms which pedestrians can use as bus stops, and every so often a row of trees. I noticed also that there are symbols of bikes everywhere on the street, although they are not always so effective as suggestions of what lanes are exclusively for bikes. Here are some photos collecting the bicycle sign visuals to be found on one popular street alone, just for kicks. To me they serve as powerful examples of how bikes have been planned for and built for in the city, even though bike ridership has decreased so significantly since before the automobile became this popular.

The sign says Parking for Bicycles is Free. Interesting that it’s one of the newest and most prominent bike signs, given that people park their bikes “for free” just about everywhere without prompting.


These worn white bike symbols are painted on the asphalt every few meters to indicate bike lanes.


Often the white symbols on the ground are paired also with these blue signs, and sometimes even a third sign pointing at the same lane. Despite the concentration of signs designating the lane as a bike lane, it still gets jammed with cars during busier traffic times. Definitely begs the question, why not a bollard instead?


No cars are allowed on this street, but the sign poses more of a suggestion than a reality. Most of the parked cars belong to residents of the hutong neighborhoods. Again begs the question, if cars are seriously prohibited, why not a bollard?

Special crossing signals for bikes. Saw these a lot in NY, but otherwise they seem uncommon in the States. Does having more symbols lead to more cycling and cycling amenities?

Over the next few weeks I will be continuing to collect visual data to formulate some research questions around the cultures, behaviors, and infrastructures of bicycle mobility in the area.

Center for Urban Pedagogy – Week 2

This week was a sort of calm before I dive into my main project for the summer, the Bronx Urban Investigation. It is set to launch on July 6th, so last week was a lull in activity while previous programs wrapped up. I got to do some design work this week, which is always really fun. Also, Deland, our fellowship coordinator, came to the CUP office for a visit this week! Thanks so much for taking time out of your trip to come and see what we’re up to, Deland.

Deland, Sandy, and I at the CUP office!

Deland, Sandy, and I at the CUP office!

I spent most of this week supporting Jenn, our Youth Ed program assistant, on the currently active City Studies. City Studies are another program under the Youth Education umbrella of CUP; they’re usually based in classrooms and focus on simplifying and making a dense classroom topic more accessible. The art deliverable produced at the end of the program then lives on and the teacher can use it to help future classes understand the topic. They involve less contact hours with students than Urban Investigations and are generally a little less in-depth because of that.

The City Study I was helping with was a partnership with the Bronx Museum. They are doing a three-part series on asthma in the Bronx. In the South Bronx, 17.3 out of 1000 people are hospitalized for asthma every year, which is about 8x the national average. The rate of incidence for asthma in children is 8.3% which is double the national average. These rates of asthma stem from two main issues: the concentration of trucking and a lack of enforcement for landlords to uphold humane, healthy living conditions for their tenants. In many old homes in the Bronx, there is mold, peeling paint, pesticides, and other chemicals that can severely exacerbate asthma symptoms and lead to hospitalization, and in some cases, death due to asthma attack. Most people don’t know that these issues in their homes are connected to asthma.

A visualization of community survey responses, conducted and created by the teens of the Bronx Museum program.

As an activist, I am constantly striving to understand more deeply the impact of injustice, to better be able to advocate for solutions that will actually make a difference. I came into my internship at CUP after a really hard year at Stanford, politically speaking. I left the year feeling loaded down by really heavy, toxic rhetoric with no idea of how to move toward solutions. I forgot what it was like to do work that was positive, purposeful, and driven towards change.

At CUP, I’m beginning to find my way back to that path. It’s been rejuvenating for my spirit as both an educator and activist to see the concrete ways in which education gives power back to disenfranchised people. When students learn about asthma with the Bronx museum, they go home and can find the triggers in their own home and tell their friends. That knowledge could quite literally decrease the number of hospitalizations due to asthma in their circle – and the best part is that the knowledge never expires. It’s sustainable and naturally reproduces. It’s justice in a very real way.

CUP's Who We Are Collage

CUP’s Who We Are Collage. Try to find me! 🙂

To close: this week, I added myself into CUP’s Who We Are collage. At the end of week 2, I’m feeling so honored to be in the silly, off-beat company of so many truly gifted artists, educators, and designers who are teaching me every day what justice looks like, both literally and figuratively.

Bamboo Biking – Week 2

A quick snapshot of this second week at BBB: Our next door neighbors moved out! So we have snagged this room and suddenly have so much more space. As recompense for refurbishing the room, it’s possible that I’ll end up living inside of the workshop itself, as my current housing will expire soon. That would be cool. In other news, we just hired three local high school interns, and I’ve been building my new bike at Workshop 33, designing a catalog for BBB, starting to make a visual workflow/how-to guide for the workshops, and drilling holes around the new room in preparation for some interior designing.

Workshop 34

Workshop 34, with new interns and old-time volunteers (all high-schoolers!)

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Ever since I started borrowing someone else’s bamboo bike last week, I’ve been learning a lot more about transportation cultures and mobility in Beijing by spending 2-3 hours on the street commuting every day. At first glance, urban biking in Beijing can seem pretty chaotic and formidable. It is chaotic — when the streets are full, especially, you can look around and see cars in the bike lane, cars parked on the sidewalk, bikers and mopeds going the “wrong” way down multiple lanes, bikes and even pedestrians in the middle lanes of major roads, and a predictable disregard for certain traffic signals.

Despite the visual mess, it’s actually very calm within the fray, because everyone is paying close attention to everyone else. When I bike down the street, I am always planning my path for the next 20 meters, and rely on everyone else around me to be doing the same, so that we can anticipate and adapt to each other’s routes. There are often status transactions going on. For example, if a single bike is going against a single car when the bike has the right of way, the car will definitely cut off the bike illegally. But if a group of twenty bikers during the morning commute decides to cut a car off when the car has the right of way, you better believe they’ll do it. For a sense of scale, here is a picture of what almost every intersection looks like outside of the central city. That’s usually enough room for 6-8 lanes of cars on a road and two bike lanes. In this moment the intersection looks like a parking lot, but when transit goes on in the middle, it becomes a huge slow jumble through which people move like a school of fish, to borrow the words of Wang Wenlan, a photographer who has published famous series of photos of China’s bicycle scene.

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

More of Wang Wenlan’s amazing bike photography can be found here. Until next week!

Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP): Week 1

Hello from Brooklyn!

My name is Jazlyn & I’m spending my summer at the Center for Urban Pedagogy. You can learn more about me and my organization here! I’ve been here for about a week and it has been quite the wild ride so far. New York City is no joke, and I am slowly developing the quad muscles to prove it.

I have done and learned an incredible amount in the four days that I’ve spent at CUP. I want to share with you all some of the main takeaways that I’ve been mulling over this week.

1) The Power of (Un)Education

The project that I’ll be working on this summer is part of CUP’s Youth Education arm. The programs are called Urban Investigations and the one that CUP is hosting in the summer will be a collaboration between 5 high schools in the Bronx. Urban Investigations are project-based curricula – check out the process in the infographic below.

UI infographic
How Urban Investigations Work

Our big question for the Bronx UI is, “Why do subways cost what they do? Who decides?” As an Urban Studies major, I heard the topic and I was like, great! Transit! We constantly learn about transit and how it works – I thought I would have a lot to contribute.

However, as I began to do my background reading, and as I began to live in New York, I came to realize how absolutely wrong that was. The New York Subway System is a behemoth of its own, and no amount of knowledge about any other transit system could have prepared me to know the intense amount of politics, money, and social dynamics that go into shaping and maintaining the subway. For instance, did you know that people who ride the subway are colloquially called straphangers? I read an entire article thinking that straphangers was some sort of derogatory term before I asked someone in the office to explain it to me.

As I dove into that research, I was so enraptured by the richness of the topic and complexity of the answer. I began to remember how amazing it is not to know stuff, both as a person and an educator. I expressed this to our director of Youth Ed, Christy, and she said, “That’s the great thing about Urban Investigations. When we pick a topic, we usually don’t know all that much about it, so we’re learning with the students as they investigate.”

For the students, that is such a powerful thing. They will have educators that are relying on them to provide essential components to the project. Without them, we wouldn’t have the answer to our question. That truly, there is no right answer – what they find is our collective truth.

2) Reciprocity

That last note feeds into my next point, which is cultivating reciprocity in service. Reciprocity is a bit of a buzzword in service – it’s something that sounds good and is actually essential to effective service, but in practice is incredibly hard to carry out in a meaningful way. Out of the 3 quarter-long service experiences that I have had in the past year, I don’t know if I successfully implemented it in any of those projects. It was a pretty elusive concept.

That is, until I arrived at CUP. I have seen this in two ways since arriving. On one side, is the reciprocity embedded in their own programming. The UI projects have an incredible amount of reciprocity between the students and their teachers, because they are co-creating knowledge. As I elaborated on above, CUP educators are not experts in every topic that they propose. In fact, a lot of the projects are specific to students’ community context and so often, students have a lot more experiential knowledge about topics than their teachers.

In my personal context, I had an incredible meeting with Christy about what my experience this summer is going to look like. She showed so much care and depth of thought about how my priorities could intersect with needs at CUP, and particularly, the needs that they will have on-site at the Bronx. For instance, one of my priorities is to get hands-on experience with the UI because I will be developing a similar curriculum later for my Urban Studies capstone project this summer. We talked about where my project intersects with Urban Investigations, and what days would be mutually beneficial for me to be on-site. For example, I will be on-site when the students conduct interviews on the street. I will get to see how to teach interview basics and see the activity in action – and I also need to be there to supervise a group so that we can split up. Reciprocity!

That’s it for now – what an amazing week to start off this summer of advocacy, justice, and growth!

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing: Week 1

Hello, I’m Geena!

I have been in Beijing, China for a little over a week now, working in the depths of an old hutong neighborhood in the little gem of a workshop called Bamboo Bicycles Beijing. (See here for a bio and description of BBB!) Most of my first days were something like an orientation, to get my hands working on the bike projects going on in order to get a feel for how the workshop operates. In this first post I’ll share some of the ways my understanding of the workshop has deepened through participating in it.

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop, held last weekend.

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop this last weekend.

There are three aspects of the workshop that are really sticking with me as I end my first week at BBB:

1) Intentionality of scale: BBB has existed for about a year now and hosted 33 workshops, which have produced just shy of 150 completed bamboo bicycles and their proud owners. Though the “reach” could certainly be considered small in a city of over eleven million, the workshop gathers a self-selecting, extremely passionate bunch who end up taking ownership of the workshop in their own way and often volunteer many hours over many weekends to pass on the skills they have learned to others who are just learning how to make their own bikes. In the last week, I was in the space for three or four media outlets who interviewed and videotaped David, BBB’s founder. I heard him reflect often on his disappointment with some of the outlets’ offers to help expand BBB’s brand and image by spinning their stories on him a certain way. “That’s not what we’re about,” David would often say to any story that did not allow for the character of BBB to stand for itself. It feels very special to work alongside someone who has total conviction for what he is and is not about. So what is BBB about, then? For one thing, the small scale of the workshops allows for the cultivation of genuine loyalty and trust in its participants. Other things:

2) Community! A lot of people talk about community. It was a catchphrase I read all over the BBB website and in interviews with David before arriving. However, being on the ground in the BBB neighborhood brought a whole new understanding to the word in the ways it is used to frame BBB’s objectives. The physical space of BBB is open to any passersby for the whole workday. Curious first-time onlookers are welcomed in, and so are the young neighborhood kids who live down the street and sometimes man their parents’ convenience store. In fact, those kids have built their own bamboo bike in the space, and one of them returned to help me build mine on Friday. David’s elderly neighbors also look out for him. One day a long-time resident was just about poised to kick me out of the shared BBB courtyard with her cane, until she realized I was with David and Claudio (another workshop leader) and burst into a forgiving smile, even insisting that I come sit in her home with her. Another neighbor leaves his door open and continually offers food. On one of my first days there he shared with us a homemade lunch over hours of conversation, pictured below. Because of the care that David takes to be a positive, active contributor to the neighborhood in which he’s set up shop, BBB’s participants find themselves cared-for by the existing community. This also strikes me as very special, perhaps guided in large part by a respect for communicating in the language of the community and a general thoughtfulness.

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面 translated as "fried sauce noodles," complete with beer in bowls!

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面, translated as “fried sauce noodles,” complete with beer in bowls!

3) Empowerment: I’ve worked as a mechanic in different bike shops in high school and college. In most bike shops in the U.S. at least, the norm is for amateur mechanics to start off learning to change flats, then do basic assemblies, then the more advanced aspects of assemblies, and finally the varied challenges of repairs. As an amateur mechanic, I was accustomed in past summers to learn two or three tasks and repeat them the entire summer, as the business models of most bike shops are most efficient if mechanics work assembly-line style. BBB has been different from the get-go because of the peer-to-peer teaching and learning that happens around the clock. It is everyone’s intention there to equip longtime workers there to deal with the entire process of building a bike, from selecting the raw material to calibrating the very last component. In fact, anyone who walks through the door can be put to work immediately by whoever has the capacity to teach. The teaching style is very couched in doing: someone will typically explain a process to me, then hand the tools over to me to do myself. This is so wonderful! Especially as a woman engineering student who has had a fair share of tools taken straight out of my hands to get the job done for me “better” or “faster.”

David has continually said that the beauty of BBB is that every new person who joins the team changes the organization in some way because of the new ideas and projects they bring — through planning bike rides and picnics, hosting photo competitions, making new arts and crafts, starting a video series, or taking ownership of BBB’s social media presence. Because the entire workshop was executed on one person’s own initiative, the norm for how things get done is that individuals must implement their visions on their own volition, all the time. This is just one more way BBB lives up to its mission to empower those who spend time there.

Well, I’m halfway through the 2-day workshop to build my own bamboo bike now, so by next week hopefully I will have something to show for it! I will also be moving away from doing bike mechanics and into doing some different projects. Thank you for reading!

How to Turn a Place Around

Placemaking.  It’s a process, a way of thinking, a rousing and powerful call to action.  It’s a vision for how to elevate community life around the world, starting one public space at a time.  As a living and evolving concept, Placemaking is exciting—and also challenging to explain and grasp.  That’s why I’m so grateful I was able to witness Project for Public Space’s entire Placemaking process, start-to-finish, this summer.  In a piecemeal way, all my projects added up to a wonderfully comprehensive and informative encapsulation of PPS’s core work: how to turn a place around.  So, how does one actually turn a place around?  I’ll tell you how!


  1. Meeting with stakeholders about the place in question. Identifying issues and opportunities.
  • I met with Harvard’s campus planners and Common Spaces Project managers to discuss Phase III of the Common Spaces project. 
  1. Developing hypotheses about the site based on the issues and opportunities (such as, “This is an unsuccessful public space because it lacks shade”). Developing a work plan.
  • Based on my knowledge of the Stanford campus and the goals laid out by the campus planners, I identified the issues (i.e. uninviting space) and opportunities (i.e. potential to interact with the streetscape) of Herrin Lawn and White Plaza.
  1. Collecting on-site data using PPS’s observational techniques such as behavior mapping, tracking, trace measures, interviews, questionnaires, and lots of photographing.
  • I collected field data during my community outreach in Marcy Plaza, Brooklyn.
  1. Analyzing collected data, reviewing initial community input, brainstorming ideas for implementation. Creating summaries of the data, revising the hypotheses.
  • These were critical parts of my Stanford project—I have long, messy lists of potential ideas and amenities as proof of my brainstorming!
  1. Hosting a public forum to solicit community feedback. May involve pop-up workshops, the Place Game, a community voting system, a mock event or activation. Based on this data, break the site down into potential zones of activity.  Public forums may be repeated throughout the entire process.
  • The pop-up workshop I helped with in Crystal City, VA, provided valuable community input. I also attended design workshops PPS was hosting in Los Altos, CA during the winter.
  1. Make a conceptual plan that includes the bubble diagram, benchmark images for each bubble, a schedule of amenities and a cost estimate for the amenities.
  • I completed this process start-to-finish for the Stanford project, and I made a schedule of amenities and cost estimate for Balboa Park in San Diego.
  1. Make a draft report presenting these recommendations. Dialogue with the stakeholders about any changes and make revisions.
  • Over the past few weeks I’ve been communicating with the Stanford planners based on my draft report.
  1. Order the amenities, implement them into the public space, gather feedback from the community. Take pictures of the activated space and note successes/failures for future projects!

These steps are meant to serve as a framework and not a rote tactic for success, however, they boast a track record of transformed public spaces.  And after following the formula for the Stanford project, I’m thrilled to say that the campus planners began ordering my recommended amenities on Friday so that Herrin Lawn will be activated by the time school starts in a month.  That’s the beauty of PPS’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach: things turn around with gratifying rapidity.  WOOHOO!!  

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.


After a whirl of finishing up my projects, sending off final recommendations, and preparing for my departure, I was happy and relieved to share my final presentation with the PPS staff on Friday, hours before I left 419 Lafayette Street for the last time!  The presentation went wonderfully, and I was especially thrilled to have Deland Chan, the Program Manager for Service Learning for Stanford Urban Studies—and the incredibly patient coordinator of this Fellowship—in attendance, as she coincidentally happened to be in New York last week.  All summer, my worlds of PPS and Stanford had been strangely parallel, and they finally met on Friday in the perfect closure to my work.

With PPS's founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.

With PPS’s founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.


In leaving PPS, my mind cycled back to the questions I’d asked myself at the beginning of the summer.  I’d written in my first blog post:   

What makes a great public place?  Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form?  Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day.  Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity.  How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

 In its simplicity, it’s startlingly clear to me now that great public spaces are the result of the conscientious interplay of all these factors.  Public spaces are the heartbeats of both the megacities and the picturesque villages, those unifying zones where people and place meet and interact with harmonizing energy.  We need to be stewards of these spaces because they mean so much more than just some colorful chairs.  Thank you, PPS, for showing me how.   

 Many thanks also to the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship, Deland Chan, and the other wonderful Fellows for teaching me so much this summer!

Community Cube Urban Activation + Final Johannesburg Reflections

My time in Johannesburg and my work with GRIND ended last Thursday with a final presentation and exposition event of the Maboneng Community Cube, my GRIND residency project. I spent the days (and nights) before the presentation working with neighborhood residents putting final touches on the Cube. The Cube was “finished” with Thursday’s presentation, but is meant to be a living and changing space, and will hopefully continue to see changes even after I leave Johannesburg.

The Community Cube final presentation during my last night at GRIND.

The Community Cube final presentation during my last night at GRIND.

The cube event opened with a public garage opening at street level.

The cube event opened with a public garage opening at street level.

The presentation incudes a free public soup event with The Urban Basket and Woza Waste and a public garage activation session, as seen here.

The presentation included a free public soup event with The Urban Basket and Woza Waste and a public garage activation session, as seen here.

The presentation itself was a remarkable success: around 60 people attended both the presentation at the GRIND studio and the Cube’s unveiling at a public garage below. More importantly than the number of attendees, the diversity of the presentation’s participants reflected the changing Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhoods quite well. As I finished my presentation, I have now been reflecting on my time in Johannesburg, my work with GRIND, and the unparalleled summer experience I have had.

Finishing the Cube: Final Touches

In the final days before the Cube’s presentation, I changed a few key features and added some new Cube capacities. Working with a local designer named Chesta, we re-painted the Cube’s top. Chesta used rulers, rollers, and brushes to paint the Cube with the same logo we had designed in Photoshop. It looks phenomenal and professional. When the Cube is closed, it can be used a meeting table to discuss community issues and events; the new logo makes using that meeting table all the more attractive.

Chesta designed the cube’s logo, which is found on top of the cube.

Chesta designed the cube’s logo, which is found on top of the cube.

In addition, I worked with local welders from the SA Welding School to devise an ingenious pulley-and-chain system for the Cube’s roof. The Cube’s roof and front side open, but the roof needed a way to stay up vertically so local residents can use the white board below the top. David and France led the effort to create a pulley-and-chain system to hold the roof open. They used only materials sourced in the neighborhood and we became quite good friends in the process. David, who is an immigrant from the Congo, even spoke in French as we discussed politics, immigration, and the Cube’s role in the neighborhood.

Welders David, France, and others design a chain contraption for the top of the cube.

Welders David, France, and others design a chain contraption for the top of the cube.

Finally, local artist Thokozane painted a brilliant mural in the Cube’s interior during the night and wee morning hours before the Cube’s final unveiling. Thokozane is often busy painting murals, walls, and public projects throughout Johannebsurg, so I was quite lucky he was able to help me. Thokozane painted a map of the neighborhood on the Cube’s floor, but this is no normal map: on the sides of the Cube the streets turn into telephone poles and buildings, the river (now an underground culvert) turns into a street sign, and the train tracks turn into a large sign that says: “Welcome to Jeppestown.” The piece was moving because of its creativity and because of its innovative coordination of geography and common neighborhood elements. Thokozane himself is from the neighborhood and all of the Cube’s participants immediately recognized the streets in his map.

Local artist and resident Thokozane designed the cube’s interior and drew it during the wee morning hours before the cube presentation.

Local artist and resident Thokozane designed the cube’s interior and drew it during the wee morning hours before the cube presentation.

For the final presentation, the Cube sat in a public garage, on street level, at the base of the GRIND building. All around the Cube, on the walls of the garage, I posted color photos of the Cube’s design process and of actors who helped make the Cube a reality. The entire space looked and felt like a living museum.

Residents look at the community cube in the GRIND public garage.

Residents look at the community cube in the GRIND public garage.

Event attendees write messages on the cube's chalkboard.

Event attendees write messages on the cube’s chalkboard.

Presenting the Cube

Finally, the big night was here! The entire GRIND office spent much of the afternoon preparing logistics for the presentation. Chloe and Mantsane, two of my friends, cooked a delicious soup for hundreds of people. The goal was as follows: create a free public soup event on the street in front of the garage space to draw locals into the garage and (hopefully) into the presentation. I had coordinated with Alice and the Urban Basket to make sure that the presentation itself also had free food and wine. Sure enough, with the big soup pots and signs saying free soup, people lined up from around the neighborhood to eat. And a large, large number were excited about the Cube exhibit. Others stayed for the entire presentation and drinks. As I stood up to give my presentation, I saw new friends, old friends, local residents, and visitors from around the globe looking back at me.

My friends Jabu and Physical, who are filmmakers in Jeppestown, came in full force. They were 30 minutes early and brought a group of 12 enthusiastic friends. Jabu also helped film the event. Jabu and Physical will be coordinating the “Friends of the Community Cube” effort now that I am leaving South Africa, and their enthusiasm at the event was exciting, to say the least.

My presentation about to begin at the GRIND Johannesburg studio.

My presentation about to begin at the GRIND Johannesburg studio.

I was also enthralled to see no fewer than 10 welders from the South African welding school at the presentation. They hooted and hollered in the back, and joked with Edet, the local baker. I also saw young people from Curiocity, like my friends Tshepo and K, who worked hard on the Cube’s exterior. I saw a dozen Maboneng and Propertuity employees, GRIND residents, and even contacts like Cuba, who works at Architects of Justice in the Newton neighborhood. My heart jumped when I saw Mariska April, the Stanford in Cape Town coordinator, walk into the room with three friends. The Sciences Po Maboneng Exchange Team also attended in full force, bringing an international perspective to the event. And half way through, Bheki and his friend Cintle walked in, which drew a tremendous smile to my face; I could not have had half of the success I did in Johannesburg without Bheki’s support. All in all, I was dumfounded and in awe to see the outpouring of support for the Cube and for my presentation.

Welders from the SA Welding school at the presentation.

Welders from the SA Welding school at the presentation.

After the event itself, I spoke with dozens of young people about how they could plug into the Cube effort. I heard ideas about putting videos and lights on the Cube, and David from the welding school talked of a solar-powered battery. Physical mentioned a fashion exhibition. And Edet asked if he could have and frame a copy of his interview on the Cube. The most amazing comment, though, came from Bheki: “I’ve never seen such a cross-section of people at an event, Stefan. Wow. Talk about a diverse group of people enjoying themselves and coming together.” I held back tears of joy. I had trouble imagining that I could soon be leaving Johannesburg.

Presentation event participants sit and listen as I begin my presentation on the community cube.

Presentation event participants sit and listen as I begin my presentation on the community cube.


Me during my presentation on the cube.

A Final Night in Johannesburg

With an upcoming trip to Bloemfontein scheduled for the next day and my GRIND presentation finished, Alice had scheduled a goodbye party at a neighborhood bar, the Zebra Inn. We closed up the office, leaving the Cube on the public street for lingering locals, and went to the Zebra. It was filled with around 40 friends, co-workers, and neighborhood residents. Some of my friends, who were a bit too busy to attend my presentation or perhaps unsure about going, found no problem attending the after party. Never since my Bar Mitzvah years ago have I had such a large celebratory event organized in my honor. I could not contain my joy and excitement as I thanked and hugged friend after friend after friend. We danced away the last night in Johannesburg, and I felt contented.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.


Johannesburg was not an easy place to live. The Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhoods were not simple places. As I was leaving the neighborhood, my friend Mantsane asked me:  “So how was it? Did you have fun this summer?” I wanted to explain to Mantsane the roller coaster of emotions, the love, the pain, the inequality, the hussle, that I felt these last few months. But I had somewhere to be, as always seems to be the case in Johannesburg. So I said: “One word about this neighborhood: energy. And it can be harnessed to create so much beauty.”

I can tell you what my summer was not.  It was not easy. It was not relaxing. It was not “chill.” It was a wild ride of beauty, of pain, of love, of crime, of friendship. I have so much respect for local residents in this neighborhood, and I was honored that they took my in for the last three months. I return to the United States a much, much wiser man. I have much more respect for community development work and I know what it takes, and how both beautiful and exhausting it can be, to live in a low-income urban neighborhood. I know I’ll be back to Johannesburg in general and to Maboneng specifically. There are too many friends with whom I must reconnect. There are too many stories unresolved. Will Bheki open up a new backpacker hostel? Will Mantsane from the Urban Basket follow her dream and open up a produce grocery cooperative? More importantly, will the camaraderie and friendship still be there when I return? Will Alice be thriving as an urban consultant? I need the answers to these questions. And, more importantly, I want to see my friends again. So I will, without question, be back.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

This summer would not have been as amazing as it was without the friendship, kindness, and support from local residents. Thank you for welcoming me into the neighborhood!