What if Time was like a Neighborhood?

Reflections on City Hall, Time, and Civic Design

Ava Nordling is the inaugural 2022 Civic Design Fellow working to support the Summer 2022 Youth Civic Design Fellows as a part of 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 if we could take a walk with a friend down the street, and every step or skip was a history, a possibility, all at once? I first thought of this question after a doctor’s visit on a Monday in April 2022. I walked from the Charles, past the trees near the Hatch Shell, and crossed the pedestrian bridge. I looked at the wind in the trees and started wondering, How has time changed the way I know this city?

Time, seven weeks to be specific, changed the way I know Boston this summer. This Summer 2022, I’ve been getting to know City Hall in a new way with my three incredible teammates, Youth Civic Design Fellows Ellis Seul, Sara Lopez, and Melissa DePina. We like to call our team the Lil’ Civic Design Cohort. We worked within the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) on exploring City Hall, the Plaza, and the Pavilion. In this reflection, I’ll walk us around Time Neighborhood. This summer is just one part of the tour.

A Walk with a Friend

Our first stop is 2019 City Hall. Step inside, and I’m 19. I walk into the third-floor entrance with a friend, Tia Thomson. Tia and I are on a small student-led design team called “Scout Labs”, that partners with MONUM to explore youth civic engagement. We’re here for our first meeting. The building reminds me of a big monster the way it looks so huge and sharp. I just moved to Boston for my undergrad, and I’m studying Experience Design at Northeastern University. I grew up in the Bay Area, and all the architecture styles I know are Victorian San Francisco or Spanish Colonial suburbs, I have never seen towering concrete like this. 2019 City Hall feels eerie, closed off, anonymous, and terrifying really. Back to our tour, our next steps take us outside the building. Watch the years pass, and I go on to continue working with MONUM. In this neighborhood, 2022 City Hall stands right next to 2019 City Hall. The two look very different. I notice 2022 City Hall feels more complex, familiar, and real.

A dark ceiling made of concrete in Boston City Hall. On the top left, light pours through a tall window and casts long lines of white onto the ceiling.
Here’s a photo I took in 2020 before a meeting with MONUM. I remember this was one of the first times I felt like City Hall could breathe. For this view, time stood still.

All At Once

As we step inside 2022 City Hall, there are many more versions of us to see. I’m 22 now, and I’m walking confidently to the second floor. I spend every weekday here now with the Civic Design Cohort. We’re working on ideas to explore City Hall, the Plaza, and the Pavilion by sketching, brainstorming, sticky-noting, painting, zine-making, and typing ( all in one day). Things feel like they are happening all at once! It’s our fifth week, and I’m standing in our cohort’s room, staring at the whiteboard, trying to make a plan for tomorrow. Stressed by the way time seems to move so fast, I start falling into these big questions. We hear my internal monologue,

“What is civic design? What do we mean by all this? Should I reinforce design as the one, perfect way for young people to start liking, or even begin trusting, government? *Sigh* No. I have to consider How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy. As the leader this summer, I feel overwhelmed by the space between intention and action. At the same time, I want be present. I didn’t want to dictate binaries and I needed to provide structure, I wanted to signal balance. But, what if balance was admitting I feel overwhelmed? I am actively unlearning so many harmful hierarchies in Design myself. What if my unlearning is exactly what grounds and opens me up to build relationships? So many questions! That’s what stays the same with Civic Design, I always leave with more questions.”

Phew! So many inner thoughts in one place and time. Let’s take a break now, walk outside 2022 City Hall. Let’s sit on a bench by the Returning River, a place without a year in Time Neighborhood. The sun is setting, or maybe it’s rising, and we have space to reflect.

A History, A Possibility

It’s such a funny thing, after our walk, it feels like the whole neighborhood looks different. As we look out on the water, I remember the question about trusting government. My history with government feels estranged. In my personal and communal past, I assumed government was big, faceless, and far, far away. The strange part is, I’m not alone in this feeling, and at times, I still feel this way. In my Time Neighborhood, City Hall 2022 reteaches me how for many young folks, the term government carries confusion and contradiction. Now I see how, in our messiest, most contradicting moments, we find possibilities within the confusions. How do we do that? Inside a piece of that strange government building I once knew, we build relationships. By being ourselves, we find sweet smallness, familiar faces, and closeness. After everything, it’s the people I meet that make this work worthwhile. Possibly, these relationships are the governing, and the history is in how we return to one another.

A white board with hand-written words on it. The words read, “Welcome! Sara, Ava, Ellis, Mellisa.” Below this welcome message is a drawing of stick-figures dancing to relieve stress.
Here’s what the white board in our 2022 summer office looked like our first week as a team. We were just starting to get to know each other better. These names and traditions (like dances or wiggles) would go on to become very meaningful in the following weeks. For this white board, time brought tenderness.

Epilogue: The Wind

What if all my past, all my questions, all my lessons are like the wind, flowing in and out of the present moment? When time is a windy neighborhood, I see the past, just around the block, rustling the leaves. I go to 2020 Park and gather deep breaths from my daily walk. I visit 2021 School, and borrow belonging from a snowy evening see-sawing. Then, I sit in the backyard at 2008 Home, and learn play from 8 year old me. For my last stop on our walk, I see the wind blowing me to 2022 Summer Sandwich Shop. My friends are inviting me to come in and stay for a while. In this neighborhood, we’ve got nothing but time.

Sabrina and Ava stand with a four-foot-tall box between them on a patch of grass. They are both smiling, and Ava opens the top of the box. The box is painted with bright orange, yellow, green, and blue colors and says the words “Public Joy”.
Here’s a sweet photo Wandy Pascoal took of Sabrina Dorsainvil and I after the cohort spent the day painting boxes to house our zines. I had always dreamt of painting something like this. For my dream, time brought laughter and satisfaction.

Ava Nordling (she/her) is a civic designer and aspiring artist in residence, who recently graduated from Northeastern University with a BFA in Design. Ava starts projects by asking a question and getting to know people. From there, she collects artifacts, builds relationships, and eventually ends up with more questions. Ava wants to learn more about somatics, and queering city government with participatory research. Looking ahead, she plans to continue her work in city government and collaborative art with special attention to fellow AAPI and Queer community. A resident of Mission Hill, Ava loves taking the slow way home through Fitzgerald park on her way back from picnics in the Fenway Victory Gardens. Oh- and if you mention arches, or the movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once, she’s more than ready to gush with you!

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. The Civic Design Fellow serves a unique role leading the cohort as a practicing young artist and designer.

--

--

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
New Urban Mechanics

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