Maggie Olson (she/her) is a 2021 Youth Civic Design Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). She spent her summer exploring the practice of civic design, learning about city government and supporting key MONUM projects. This year’s 8-week fellowship was made possible through the Youth Engagement and Employment SuccessLink Program for youth and young adults.
When I first saw the application for the Youth Civic Design Fellowship program at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), I had never thought about what civic design was. To be honest, I had never even heard the term before my first day at MONUM, when we first discussed our summer plans. Little did I know that almost two months later the question of what civic design was would still remain. This time there would also be hundreds of other questions, varying in size and complexity.
Take the word “civic” for example. Originally, my co-fellow Janice and I found the definition of civic to be “relating to a city and its administration or the duties of people within a city.” Pretty straightforward right? That is, until you include the question of what counts as local government and what their duties are. And then you begin to wonder if government involvement qualifies something as civic. And if not, then we’re back to square one: What does civic really mean? You can imagine how many of the conversations between Janice and I have gone. Throughout the summer our definition of civic design continued to change, and we questioned the many interconnected responsibilities of a civic designer. The definition changed even more so when we considered the role MONUM plays in the field of civic design.
Curiosity is something that MONUM encourages. They believe the questions we ask are as important as the answers. They also believe that valuing a beginner’s mindset helps us to achieve progress. I entered this position as a beginner in the field of civic design. I have learned so much in an environment that encourages skepticism and approaches every project with a sense of wonder and creativity. Throughout the summer I took part in short discussions with city department chiefs. There I learned about their experiences in and outside of City Hall. I attended Deep Dive sessions that introduced me to MONUM’s past and present projects. I was also able to learn from other MONUM summer fellows and the projects they were pursuing. Across these opportunities I heard how many new ideas began with curiosity. I was always left wondering about new directions.
Curiosity was at the center of my summer, but I was surprised to see the emphasis on delight as well. This summer I got to learn about projects such as the Joy Agenda. We brainstormed ideas that could inspire delight throughout the city of Boston after the past year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic. We did so while acknowledging that joy exists alongside grief. I also worked on the Public Space Invitational (PSI). The Public Space Invitational centers on residents’ engagement with the public spaces in Boston through collaborations with local artists. This year the project features new designs for compost bins and a compost song, centering joy as well as education and community.
Hand in hand with delight, I have seen the importance of including community perspectives within projects. I attended a Sketch Night for the Housing Innovation Lab and Boston Society for Architecture’s Future Decker competition. At the event I experienced one of the many creative ways that community members can interact with possible futures. In this case, it was the future of housing. All the projects I learned about were ultimately people-centered, even though they varied from everything between the permitting process to composting to housing.
After spending a summer as a Youth Civic Design Fellow I have found myself searching for ways that we can bring more curiosity, joy, and community perspective to every place in the city. I have learned that there is so much more to local government than mayoral elections and paperwork and there is so much more to the world of design than blueprints and sketches. As a summer of being a fellow comes to a close, I’m left with more questions than I started with. After the past eight weeks I am content with knowing that there is no direct answer to most of them. Our findings were completely different than what Janice and I had imagined when we first embarked on our MONUM journey. Being a civic designer does not have a singular job description. Instead, the qualifications and values of a civic designer continue to grow and expand beyond the walls of City Hall and out to people creating for change in our city, state, country, and world, quite possibly people like you.
Maggie is a student and lifelong Bostonian who is currently a rising senior at Boston Latin School. She is especially interested in learning about how we can achieve environmental justice through equitable climate policy and sustainable urban design. In the past Maggie has worked for Speak For the Trees and served on Boston’s Mayor’s Youth Council, where she has developed passions for community civic engagement and youth climate action. In her free time, Maggie can often be found rowing on the Charles River or exploring the Arnold Arboretum.
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.