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Hester Street Collaborative: Empowering Young Residents to Shape Their Own Environment

image courtesy of HSC's Flickr photostream

If you’re walking through New York City’s Chinatown and spot an out-of-the-ordinary cart, you’ll be looking at one of Hester Street Collaborative’s latest projects devoted to using design as a tool for social change.

Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) based in Chinatown, works with local residents, particularly students, in transforming neglected public spaces in parks, schools, and affordable housing developments through a “design-build” process which allows stakeholders to play a hands-on role. In a recent interview with, Dylan House, project manager at HSC explained how his background as an architect led to his interest in urban planning issues and examining how communities can impact their personal environments.

HSC’s Cart Helps Encourage Civic Engagement

One of the challenges faced by HSC every day is finding a means to engage people who aren't normally included as part of the design process for neighborhoods -- because of age limitations, or language issues, or any other roadblock. House works to provide the professional architecture and opportunities to interact with current residents of neighborhoods to empower them as decision-makers, so they can improve public spaces and, in turn, encourage civic engagement and a sense of ownership. The cart is one way to do just that.

The repurposed bike trailer contains a fold-out table and storage shelves, he says, "where people can put the different materials they are using, whether it is pamphlets or flyers or clipboards or cameras or recording equipment for oral histories." HSC refers to this cart as a “charrette,” playing on a term used in the architectural design community. Charrette, the French word for “cart,” also describes an intense period of collaborative design activity.

Community Brainstorming Sessions to Improve Local Public Space

The plan is to set up these charrettes in areas where a particular group can gather to think up ways to improve their local public space. For example, HSC teamed up with residents near a Chinatown park targeted for renovation in a paper-lantern making project. House said, "You could write your wish for the park on the lanterns in whatever language you felt comfortable with, or you could just draw it -- if you wanted to see more green spaces you could draw a really green park." That brainstorm session became an annual temporary art installation at the Chinatown park that celebrates the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Facilitating Conversation Within The Community

HSC also works with New York City agencies to open up channels of communication. "Our goal is to facilitate this conversation between the agency and the community," said House, "to make the agency more responsive to community needs, and at the same time help the community understand what the process is and who the players are, and how they can have a seat at the table there when we do these sort of input gathering activities and modeling activities and design activities."

The hope for the neighborhood carts is that they can rally a greater degree of positive neighborhood interaction, create vibrant parks, and a deepened sense of community that spreads from Chinatown to the rest of New York’s distinct neighborhoods.

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Nice article, well written. The Charrette sounds much more appealing than the common "cart". My plan is to set up a Sausage Charrette in Oswego, IL to vend the Hillshire Farm Sausage Creations. I can't wait until Spring! Keep up the creative articles. -StreetFood

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