Connecting to Community in the time of COVID-19

The pandemic has forced us all to reconsider how we remain engaged with our communities. For many organizations, this has meant re-envisioning existing places of gathering to provide support and developing new ways of responding to changing needs. Our final Year of Gathering event brought together leaders from North Philly Peace Park, Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC), and the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh for a conversation on how each has remained resilient and strengthened community connections this year.

Places of Gathering

Patricia Culley, an associate principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, began by asking each speaker to introduce their gathering place. Kirsten Christopherson-Clark, Waldorf’s head of school, spoke of the holistic “head, heart, and hands” process that nurtures student development. The evolution of the school’s campus, including working with our practice to design a new eighth grade classroom building, was informed by a similar approach. Kirsten noted that site studies engaged natural surroundings in much the same way an educator would look at a child: by seeing what’s there, getting a feeling for the person (or space), and then seeing what wants to come.

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Waldorf School of Pittsburgh Eighth Grade Classroom © Nic Lehoux

North Philly Peace Park Founder Tommy Joshua explained how the park has grown from its roots as a community improvement project to a multi-service engine for growth that addresses food inequality, poverty, educational, and health disparities. With a mission to “build a coalition of the heart,” Tommy described the increasingly vital placemaking role the park has played in the neighborhood.

From an earth ship structure to working with our practice to create an Afrofuturist-inspired pavilion, Tommy shared how his team has considered physical space at the park over time. In 2012, work began to establish a commonly held public place with a focus on urban agriculture. Reacting to local school closures, Tommy reached out to students and formed a group of community members that identified guiding themes and goals. Over the last two years, design sessions have led to plans for a 2,000 square-foot building that will allow the park to expand its reach and mission.

Located in the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Pocono Environmental Education Center is one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country. A unique public/private partnership — a non-profit located on federal parkland — PEEC has been bringing students to the Poconos from major urban areas for almost 50 years. Jeff Rosalsky, PEEC’s executive director, spoke of the power of the experience for students, some of whom might be visiting a forest for the first time. The buildings onsite, including the Visitor Activity Center, are integral to the educational process.

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Pocono Environmental Education Center © Nic Lehoux

Responding to the Moment

As the pandemic took hold, Tommy found that the “fence-free” park was uniquely suited to the moment. As many areas were closing down in the spring, the energy of park staff, busy with early season planting, became highly visible. As Tommy noted, “the character of the organization came to life.” In addition to distributing food, staff recognized a need for mental health and conflict resolution services and created a “peace guard” of counselors to help. “The best complement was that people have been saying continually, we’re so thankful for the park,” added Tommy. “They said, it feels like everything else has changed and you’ve remained the same.”

“When the nation was winding down, we were winding up.”

– Tommy Joshua, Founder, North Philly Peace Park

For parents of Waldorf students, Kirsten added that the school community is a lifeline right now. While known for its hands-on approach to learning, the school has helped provide devices to families to facilitate online learning, while teachers have maintained strong connections with their students.

PEEC is typically busiest during the spring, with over 200 students visiting daily. Jeff noted the importance of maintaining an outdoor resource — PEEC offered more day programs and helped hikers maintain social distancing on trails by making many one direction. Through PPP funding and a grant from the Greater Pike Community Foundation, the organization seized the opportunity to help the community, using the Visitor Activity Center for meal preparation and delivering food to area residents, EMTs and NPS staff.

Lessons for the Future

Considering what changes the Waldorf School might integrate permanently, Kirsten said that certain elements like outdoor classrooms and accommodating more technology, like virtual meetings, may continue. Students have had to think about how to be with one another in a different way, which has inspired creativity. For PEEC, this has also been a time to take action on wish list items like direct outreach to schools and enhanced online programming.

“We’ve learned to ask our students more, what would make things better for you? And they come up with great things we forget to think of.”

— Kirsten Christopherson-Clark, head of school, Waldorf School of Pittsburgh

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North Philly Peace Park © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

As work continues to make the North Philly Peace Park Pavilion a reality, Tommy remarked on the role design thinking has played in the park’s evolution, including the importance of framing challenges as design problems and gathering people from many different backgrounds to inspire creative solutions. In a community faced with various barriers, architecture “has been a revolutionary ingredient … an ally of the powerless to gain power, and those without voice to have a voice.”

Throughout our Year of Gathering series, we have been fortunate to hear from many of our collaborators on the power of architecture and its role in how, when, and where we gather. In times of uncertainty and change, these conversations have been linked by a shared sense of community and stories of resiliency, adaptation, and new ways of connecting and showing support. The themes that surfaced throughout this final event — approaching work with love and care, and the fundamental importance of nurturing creativity — provide a fitting conclusion to the many inspiring conversations we’ve had this year.

Further Reading

Year of Gathering
Embodying Waldorf Education
Waldorf School of Pittsburgh Initiatives
An Adaptive Model of Sustainable Design in the Poconos
Video: Pocono Environmental Education Center
North Philly Peace Park Pavilion
North Philly Peace Park Initiatives

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