I have worked with Beyond Walls since 2016, lending design expertise and visualization to support community-led initiatives. I am most impressed by the group’s ability to execute meaningful community-enhancement projects while negotiating challenging social, regulatory, and logistical constraints. Big ideas underpin the organization, but it’s the delivery of this vision which defines the group’s success.
The organization’s approach is simple and powerful: Beyond Walls aligns its arts initiatives with the strategic goals of its community partners to improve the places where we live, work, and play. They engage the local stakeholders as collaborators, both in defining the problem and in developing the solution. With incredible speed, this approach delivered successes in cities like Lynn, where activations such as the multi-year Mural Festival, Retrolit Project, Patio Parklets, and Underpass Lighting increased activity and walkability in the downtown Cultural District.
2020 brought a formidable host of new challenges. As a placemaking entity, Beyond Walls had to adjust its approach to maintain its mission in the context of both a global pandemic and domestic social turmoil. How do we build community when we cannot gather? How might we use design to elevate the provision of necessary services and support public health and local businesses? The pandemic has disproportionately impacted groups that were already disadvantaged. For me as an architect, it has highlighted the inequities codified in the built environment, particularly with respect to wealth, race, and gender. In this light, I’ve begun to think of public, shared space as the key battleground for combating this built injustice. The work of Beyond Walls has always been focused on this public territory in communities with demonstrated need and the appetite for civic enhancement. This work is more important now than ever.
In response to the ongoing pandemic, the COVID-19 Vulnerable Populations Task Force in Lynn, MA, expressed an immediate need for hand washing stations to promote public health and safety. Off-the-shelf handwashing stations were not available with the necessary speed. Responding to this call, Beyond Walls and Payette developed WaSH, a stand-alone, hands-free wash station to enable a return to public spaces including parks, playgrounds, and outdoor dining areas. This system combines the quality of a product-design approach with the engagement of a grassroots initiative. Laser-cut sheet metal parts flat-pack for simple assembly by novice labor (provided by paid interns from Lynn Tech Vocational High School). Over the summer, we built three dozen of these stations. Each is a physical value statement, a carefully designed and crafted object which effectively says, “this community values public health and is committed to protecting it.”
FoLD arose out of conversations with multiple state and municipal-level agencies who recognized that cities needed an attractive, easy to install barrier system that makes outdoor street-side dining safe and accessible while protecting clientele from traffic. As an alternative to concrete barriers or ad-hoc fences, FoLD used the same material and fabrication approach as WaSH to create a readily deployable amenity. This system is flexible enough for easy relocation or seasonal storage but permanent enough to suggest that outdoor dining should continue to be an economic and social boon long after the pandemic is over.
WaSH and FoLD do more than address an immediate public health crisis; these projects establish a precedent and a process for executing long-term civic improvements to ensure the success of underserved, but resilient communities. The work of Beyond Walls in 2020 was fast, responsive, and highly visible. I look forward to continuing our collaboration with Beyond Walls in the years to come.