Paving Pathways in Civic Design

Ellis Seul is a 2022 Youth Civic Design Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics Civic Design Cohort. This cohort explores city government and the practice of civic design while supporting ongoing MONUM projects. This year they also developed ideas for making more welcoming spaces in Boston City Hall and its surrounding Plaza.

What is civic design? This is one of the first questions that came up as I started working at MONUM this summer, and a guiding question which my fellow Youth Civic Design Fellows and I have explored, both directly and indirectly, throughout our time here. My initial answers to this question — though of course there is no one clear answer to such an open and all-encompassing topic — were informed by my existing interests such as urban planning and public transit. My initial conception of a civic designer’s duty was that they worked on tackling questions like “How do we make better use of street space?” or “How do we fix the T?”. Through my time at MONUM, I have learned that, while these questions are important, the full extent of civic design encompasses so much more. It considers a wide range of angles and disciplines to make cities an experience that everyone can enjoy.

An area where the existing design provides both opportunities and obstacles to creating an enjoyable city experience is Boston City Hall, where I spent the majority of my summer as a MONUM fellow. Though there are many spaces inside City Hall, especially MONUM’s home base in the Haymarket Room, that provide a sense of warmth and community, the building’s concrete Brutalist design can at times feel overbearing or cold, so much of our work as youth fellows is concerned with how we can make the space feel more welcoming and accommodating, both for staff and one-time visitors. Through our interior improvement project, “Take a Call @ City Hall,” we worked to construct private areas for staff to take calls or attend virtual meetings, a critical need especially during the era of hybrid work. Outside of the building itself, we worked on planning programming for the newly-opened City Hall Plaza and Civic Pavilion. We used staff and visitor responses to determine how we can make the plaza welcoming and bring people closer to city government. By creating personas for potential visitors and using tools such as service blueprints, we were able to suggest interventions to improve the use of the Plaza. These included giving out feedback cards to event attendees to suggest what they want to see, as well as proposing potential uses for the soon-to-open pavilion like meditation and exercise classes.

As I quickly learned and have kept in mind throughout my time at MONUM, one of the most important aspects of civic design is collaboration and active engagement to help people. I practiced this spirit of collaboration during my time here by working with other Summer Fellows on their projects, specifically MC Abbott’s Mass & Cass participatory mapping activity and Bailey Siber’s project to bring more Boston Public Library services through the MBTA. By helping with these projects, I learned a lot from the summer fellows about working in civic design as well as explore more directly into topics I’m interested in such as geography, urban planning and public transit. I also enjoyed the DTPR field research we did with Yo Deshpande, MONUM’s Technologist for the Public Realm, and Summer Fellow Neha Kulsh as it was very informative and interesting to get hands-on experience with observational study. Our cohort’s collaborative spirit and collective brainstorming greatly enhanced my MONUM experience and contributed to my understanding of what civic design truly is.

Coming back to the original question, through my time at MONUM, I have developed a much more complete understanding of the true meaning of civic design. It involves bringing creativity to one’s approach to problem-solving, bringing in disciplines of art, design and storytelling to paint a fuller picture of the issue at hand. It also involves directly engaging with the communities we’re working with, using surveys and having conversations to find out what people really need. Most of all, civic design brings to government what many outside observers would think it lacks: joy. My MONUM experience this summer has definitely been a joyful one, in addition to being educational and rewarding, so thank you to everyone who helped make it so awesome!

Ellis Seul is a rising senior at Boston Latin School with an interest in urban planning and the ways it intersects with geography, the environment and more. They are very passionate about public transit and the ways systems like the MBTA can be used and improved to help people get to where they need to be as efficiently as possible, both in terms of time and environmental cost, and they are also interested in how maps and geographic data can be used to inform decisions about how to improve the spaces in which we live. In their free time, they enjoy listening to and playing music, researching various topics relating to urbanism and running as part of the BLS cross country and track teams. A few spaces they enjoy visiting in Boston are the Southwest Corridor and the BPL Central Library.

About the Fellowship:
The New Urban Mechanics Youth Civic Design Fellowship is designed for youth interested in working at the intersection of design and public service. We are prototyping ways to honor the reflections and contributions of youth in civic design work, foster curiosity about government, and encourage imagination. In addition to working on their own projects the youth civic design fellows connect with city staff based on their interest and reflect on the work being done by our team through their perspective. This year’s fellowship was made possible through the Youth Engagement and Employment SuccessLink Program for youth and young adults.

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The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.