Ahmad and Alex have a bold vision for their neighborhood. They don’t just want a grocery store, they want one that carries fresh produce grown on-site, 12 months a year, making use of a greenhouse and aquaponics operation, complete with a pond surrounded by a park.
“And in the winter time, people can ice skate on the pond,” said Alex, smiling proudly.
Taking that vision a step toward reality, Ahmad, 11, and Alex, 10, worked Saturday afternoon to build a model of a city street with their grocery store/greenhouse setup, sketching in the pond and the park and positioning wooden blocks to show where the buildings would go.
At nearby tables in the Madison Central Library’s kids area, about 50 other kids built models of their own visions for neighborhoods: a “super school” with students in pre-school through college, a homeless shelter attached to a community garden, a compact multi-use athletic complex.
Earlier in the day, the kids watched videos for hip-hop songs that address community and urban living. They broke into groups (with names like Creative Crew and Roar) and brainstormed what they’d like to see more and less of in their communities.
The full series of activities, dubbed Hip-Hop Architecture Camp, took about four hours and produced a unique and energetic vision of city life. Madison architect Michael Ford thinks city planners should be paying attention.
“I go to those city planning meetings and they lack diversity as far as race and age is concerned because usually they’re not effectively engaging people and they’re not culturally relevant,” said Ford, who led the kids through the various activities Saturday. “But this is different in that it uses hip-hop and using kids’ language and their style, which seems chaotic. But what people perceive as chaos is very organized.”
Some of the participants will return for the next few Saturdays to refine some of the ideas further.
“All of these suggestions and community building ideas will be written out,” said Rob “Dz” Franklin, a Madison hip-hop artist involved in the planning of Saturday’s activities. “And then I have a group — the MC collective Kids These Days — who will do the next three sessions with community kids to create an anthem and a video.”
The whole production will premiere at UW-Madison’s Union South on Friday, March 17 at 7 pm.
“I’ve been calling it the dopest urban planning session ever,” said Mike Dando, a UW-Madison Ph.D. student in multicultural education and another organizer of the camp. “The kids will be able to show off their work and talk about what they did, why they did it and why it’s important.”
Ford, who has been picked to design the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in New York, plans to compile all of the ideas and several designs from Saturday, along with photos, into a book that can be presented to city officials. But he’s not stopping there. He also wants to package the activities from the camp into a program that can be run in other cities.
“We’ll be doing a panel discussion at SXSW and I’ll be showing this video, talking about how we get more youth of color involved in architecture,” Ford said. “And it’s not just youth of color; hip-hop culture is diverse. It can get more people involved, period.”
Ford has been working in Madison for about seven years, but also traveling around the country speaking about the value of integrating hip-hop with architecture. Saturday’s camp put many of those ideas into practice.
“Hip-hop is a source of innovation. Think about the auto industry; Chrysler uses hip-hop. Fashion. Everyone uses hip-hop because of its marketing power,” Ford said. “Architecture hasn’t and architecture lacks that innovation that hip-hop brings. The kid who is not accustomed to thinking about budget will come up with totally different ideas. They’re not thinking about a lot of stuff that holds us back from creativity, so they push the boundaries. We just need to give them access and enable them.”
At another table Mila, 11, and Nadia, 13, build their model neighborhood, focused on access to education.
“This is the university and this is the elementary school and daycare,” said Mila, pointing to a cluster of wooden model buildings. “If you’re an adult and you go back to college and you have a 3-year old, they can go here. Or if you have an older kid, they can go to the school.”
Ford was rocked by some of the ideas coming out of the Saturday sessions.
“We said, ‘What don’t you want in your neighborhood?’ Kids started saying ‘Less capitalism. Less communism.’ Where are these terms coming from?” Ford said. “This girl over here said, ‘We need a park bench so if you don’t have friends you can sit on that park bench and then people can see you don’t have a friend and come meet you.’
“I’m like, ‘Wow!’”