centenial square charette

It all started when I received an email inviting us to a charrette. A what? A web search came up with this definition “an intense period of design or planning activity.” The message came from Diana Studer, a thesis student in the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Architecture Syllabus program. Her final project was leading children through a design workshop (charrette) to elicit their input into a redesign of Centennial Square. The final results were to be submitted to the City of Victoria to inform their new master plan. Intrigued, we accepted the invitation!

Early one morning, our middle school class, along with grade fives from the elementary, gathered in the square (which is, in fact, a circle), where Diana introduced us to a group of architects who would be working with our learners. The first step was a scavenger hunt to familiarize themselves with the square. They then moved indoors to take a virtual tour through public spaces around the world. The students were invited for their feedback about which spaces looked inviting and the features they found appealing. From this they developed a list of five attributes they would like to see in our city’s redesigned space.

Each learner then had the opportunity to re-imagine the square by drawing, writing, and gluing images onto their own diagram of the square. Finally, they shared their ideas with the architects. What a full morning! Time for a lunch break and some playing in the square.

When we returned, the meeting space had been transformed by a large cardboard model of Centennial Square in the center of the room. After a few moments to take it in, the students were each given a Lego person who represented a user (to scale) in the model of the square. Each figure had a note that explained who they were, their age, and how they liked to use the space. Some of the people had specific mobility needs, such as pushing a stroller, riding a bike, or using a wheelchair. Groups of learners were then sent outside to plan a new design for an assigned section of the square. Each of them had to keep in mind the needs of their “person”.

Back inside, the groups worked together to express their ideas by creating and adding their own embellishments to the model. As they interacted with it, they were completely engrossed in their vision. Once their work was complete, the groups gathered around the model and took turns explaining their designs to councillors from the City of Victoria. It was fascinating listening to the students express their ideas for the square, and to hear the sometimes contrasting views of the pragmatists and the dreamers. In the midst of the conversation, one of the students turned to me and said, “one day I will walk through the new Centennial Square, and I will point to some of the things they have done and say, ‘I helped design that!’”

It is easy to engage learners in problems that involve real situations with personal significance. Our experience with the architects provided our learners with a meaningful voice in their community, and introduced them to another interesting possible career path. A big “thank you” to Diana Studer for inviting us to be a part of this, and congratulations on a very well-planned final project! Thank you to the architects who shared their expertise, listened carefully, and helped our learners to express their vision. And thank you to the City of Victoria for giving youth a voice in the development of the master plan!