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News > Context Fall 2022 > Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure

Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure

An Interdisciplinary Design Studio At UPenn's Weitzman School of Design
Overall view of design components for WPHS projects.
Overall view of design components for WPHS projects.

By Eduardo Rega Calvo, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture Weitzman School of Design, UPenn

In an on-line conversation held on May 27th, 2021, as part of the Strike MoMA Working Group, American activists and scholars Stefano Harney and Fred Moten discussed how universities and museums—as western gatekeepers of culture and knowledge—contribute to oppressive structures of power.1

Comparing these institutions to ‘shredding machines,’ Harney noted that they can turn cooperatively produced knowledge into individualized commodities. Considering this characterization, our interdisciplinary team of educators and students at the University of Pennsylvania, working alongside West Philadelphia community members and local youth, asked whether a design studio that originates within the university can carve a space, however small, for rehearsing a reversal of this condition. Can private institutions of higher education contribute to a sustained program of reparations to those who have been systematically marginalized, displaced, and dispossessed? What does a design studio at the Weitzman School of Design focused on education justice in Philadelphia look like, and how does it address, oppose, and reject the normalization of violence against its black, brown, and working-class neighbors? Can design studios interrupt, if only momentarily the reproduction of power dynamics that typically delivers knowledge, disciplinary expertise, and skills one-directionally from teacher to student?2 And, can design studios refuse to reproduce the asymmetrical relations of a traditional corporate practice?

What follows are reflections on these questions via student work completed during a recent design studio titled Studio+, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure, an advanced level interdisciplinary design studio held during spring 2022 and taught by architect Eduardo Rega Calvo, landscape architect Abdallah Tabet, and artist Ernel Martinez. The studio was part of a larger community-engagement and interdisciplinary design initiative organized by PennPraxis, the center for applied research, outreach, and practice at the Weitzman School whose mission includes bringing together civic organizations, faculty, and students from all departments at the School of Design—Fine Arts (FNAR), Architecture (ARCH), City and Regional Planning (CPLN), Historic Preservation (HSPV), and Landscape Architecture (LARP).3

Course offerings, summer building and education programs for community youth, and work-study opportunities for Penn students are all part of PennPraxis initiatives. The spring 2022 interdisciplinary design studio was inspired by and based on ongoing research conducted by Weitzman assistant professor in City Planning Akira Drake Rodriguez, whose course Planning Public Schools as Infrastructure (Fall 2021) introduced students to local organizations such as the Our City Our Schools (OCOS) Coalition, the Philadelphia Student Union, the Philadelphia Home and School Council (PHSC), and others, to develop planning recommendations and frameworks for the creation of a “Philadelphia Public Schools People’s Facilities Master Plan” (

Using the Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook developed by labor activist Ruben Garcia as inspiration for the studio’s methods, Studio+, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure created a space to speculate, design, and rehearse a self-organized interdisciplinary agency and cooperative practice model for introducing the values of design justice in real-world design-build projects.4 Studio+ was at once a critical form of spatial practice, a vehicle for students, faculty, and outside collaborators to collectively imagine more equitable worlds, and a means for operating concretely and immediately while acknowledging the contradictions of working from within institutions adjacent to West Philadelphia’s disenfranchised population. The studio allied itself with diverse community organizers, teachers, and local youth to advance spatially determined social justice projects, inclusive of the large scale of systems, institutions, and infrastructures, of the neighborhood, and of built furniture and urban artifacts of use in and out of school buildings. Material implementation of Studio+ design projects took place during late spring and summer 2022, led by interested students hired and supported through PennPraxis’s Design Fellows program.

The studio rehearsed an alternative design practice inspired by and reflective of egalitarian values and cooperative principles held by grassroots organizations and social justice movements [Figure 1]. It asked how we might embody the cooperative principles of social justice in our own practice as designers? How might we incorporate diverse backgrounds, disciplines, skills, struggles, and motivations for justice into the way we design and build together? The hope was that this search for answers would result in more thoughtful, multifaceted, complex, and relevant outcomes.

Seeking to meaningfully contribute to a collective project for justice, the studio prioritized standing in solidarity and establishing connections with social organizations within and beyond UPenn’s campus. These included grassroots initiatives and counter-institutions that have historically fought for justice and practiced equitable and collective world-building processes, including the North Philadelphia and West Philly Peace Parks, the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the New Africa Center, Youth United for Change, the Penn for PILOTS petition, and the Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition.5 These movements for justice inspired our political outlook and helped conceptualize our design strategies.

During the first four weeks of the course, and through weekly assemblies, studio members organically self-organized into three working groups. The first group, Education Justice, Outreach, and Communication was charged with formatting the studio’s research and design work for sharing with above mentioned organizations and movements. The second group, Design Engagement, developed and prepared the participatory design workshops held with local youth partners from West Philadelphia High School (WPHS). Lastly, Design Strategies, focused on translating the collective imaginaries of our participatory design workshops into components of a design-build project destined for a public school in West Philadelphia.

The studio used maps, diagrams, and other forms of spatial visualization to communicate various scales of socio-spatial research focused on the school district, corporate forces, private interests, and the history of classist and racist public policies in the neighborhood. The work critiqued structures of power that have contributed to the disinvestment and closures of public schools in West Philadelphia, while it offered tools and methods for their dismantling. It focused on the presence of cooperative networks of mutual aid and resource redistribution to avoid the design project becoming yet another tool for gentrification.

In parallel, the studio studied and developed tools and methods for participatory design with public-school students and teachers. Teams of Weitzman students facilitated workshops on a weekly and bi-weekly basis alongside students enrolled in West Philadelphia High School’s Architecture Career and Technical Education program (CTE). Workshops encouraged local youth to discuss how they experienced their neighborhood and its possible transformation, how design could become more accessible and democratic, how play could be used to acquire skills for design and spatial analysis (from measuring their environment to guerilla gardening), and how engaging in collaborative visioning sessions could help them express and give shape (via drawing, writing and collage) to their desires for transforming their school and neighborhood [Figures 2, 3, above].

Following workshops with Architecture CTE teacher Ms. Jessica McCollum and her students, Studio+ translated collages, drawings, and conversations into a design-build strategy for the school. Interdisciplinary teams of students were formed to develop in greater depth four projects including a possibilist porch, a garden design, a ground mural, and outdoor furniture [overview, Figure 4, right]. As described by the first project team, the possibilist porch covering the opaque southern facade of the school’s gymnasium, “adapts the neighborhood porch into a social space at the transition of school and community, offering a hub for gathering, refuge, and celebration at the school’s main entrance [shown at top of Figure 4 and inset, Figure 5]. The porch comprises three key spaces: a production greenhouse, an elevated wood deck, and a climate-controlled greenhouse. Together, they provide a flexible range of open to enclosed spaces as an expansive infrastructure for the school’s curriculum and events. The structures utilize different combinations of off-the-shelf greenhouse and scaffolding kit components and simple timber framing, allowing for a phased construction to expand and reconfigure spaces in tandem with the school’s programs and capacity.”6 The project’s simple assembly techniques means that students, teachers, and community members can all participate in the construction phase of the project, led by PennPraxis Fellows during summer 2022.

The garden design project proposes a ground transformation and planting strategy along the axis between 50th street and the school’s courtyard [Figure 4 bottom right]. As described by team members: “A ramp from 50th street invites the community into the entryway garden and gives students a place to relax under the trees. The ramp runs between two retention basins, reinforces the existing cistern’s wall, and captures rainwater. The meandering path’s variable width allows for places of rest and congregation to explore the school-spirited planting and edible gardens. The courtyard integrates many native ornamental and edible plants, encouraging student exploration and curiosity. Integrating a workbook [below left, Figure 6] into the school’s curriculum, “Our Edible Garden, [... is a] guide for growing and harvesting food, cooking meals tied to local cultures, and connecting with local food-oriented organizations. This workbook can be updated yearly as the garden evolves or can be adapted to neighboring school garden designs.”7

The third project addresses the hard surfaces of the school’s grounds, reconceived as a canvas and invitation to artistic expression for students and neighbors alike [bottom right, Figure 4]. The graphic pattern of the ground mural design covers the asphalt and brick bringing cohesion to a driveway, parking lot, sidewalk, and courtyard. It also suggests with lines and marks that a parking lot can be a playground and a sports court, and that sidewalk and courtyard can act as a canvas for local youth to paint. The ground mural is also framed as a way-finding tool, giving “an indication of directions leading to points of access, entrances, garden features and the greenhouse.”8

The final project is focused on furniture, a fast, accessible, and rewarding scale to learn and practice design and construction at the 1:1 scale [inset below right, Figure 7]. Furniture design exposes students to diverse fabrication techniques that include steel-pipe bending, concrete casting, and woodworking. These construction methods are easy to acquire, require simple fabrication tools, and contribute to building skills that can be applied within and beyond the school. They encourage a high degree of design-build agency in defining bent steel angles, concrete textures, formwork patterns, and wood treatments. The design strategy facilitates a variety of combinations of modular units to enable multiple uses that include outdoor classrooms, eating areas, and spaces for gathering, performing, assembling, rehearsing, and resting. Modular units of furniture include benches, chairs, desks, and sunbeds.

All four design projects are meant as vehicles for learning-through-building. Thinking collaboratively about the steps needed to build the various design components was at the core of the studio’s design decisions and process. This impacted material selections, fabrication techniques, formal strategies and forms of representation including the making of manuals for the various methods of construction and assembly. The goal was not only to propose a series of structures, but to offer the building tools and fabrication skills for high school students, teachers, and Praxis summer fellows to build said structures during the summer. In addition, the studio proposed a 3-year plan that included a strategy for shared stewardship of the site by UPenn and West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), in support of a cooperative network for justice and equity in West Philadelphia.

Studio+, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure has created a space that combines diverse skills, interests, cultural, and disciplinary backgrounds: a space that collectively draws counter-hegemonic political imaginaries and future design projections, that learns from social justice movements how to practice design differently, that operates both within and beyond the institution of the university, and that engages public schools in West Philadelphia in education justice.

Studio+, launched during spring 2022, was taught by Abdallah Tabet (LARP), Eduardo Rega (ARCH) and Ernel Martinez (FNAR). The studio’s theme, Public Schools as Equity Infrastructure, was inspired and based on research conducted by City Planning assistant professor Akira Drake Rodriguez and on the content of her course Public Schools as Infrastructure. The building phase will follow the design studio in summer 2022. Studio+ is part of a series of annual studios, organized by PennPraxis’s executive director Ellen Neises, coordinated by Dyan Castro, and supported by the Weitzman School of Design and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.


1. “A Conversation with Sandy Grande, Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, Jasbir Puar, and Dylan Rodriguez,” May 27, 2021 (1:47:15). Strike MoMA Working Group of IIAAF. 2:09:39. See also Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: fugitive planning & black study (Minor Compositions, 2013).

2. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

3. PennPraxis ( is led by Ellen Neises (Professor of Practice in Landscape Architecture and Lori Kanter Tritsch Executive Director) and Dyan Castro (Architecture and Landscape Architecture graduate and coordinator of the Studio+initiative).

4. Ruben Garcia, Seth Markle, Foluke Nunn, Emery Wright, and Stephanie Guillord, Peoples Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook (2016),

5. See the following websites,,,,,,

6. Project description by Ziying Huang, Pedro Medrano, Jackson Plumlee, Marissa Marie Sayers, Youzi (Olivia) Xu

7. Project description by Siran Chen, Kathryn Dunn, Elizabeth Servito, Catherine Valverde.

8. Project description by Huiyi An, Yuhan Wang, Zhong (Clara) Xin


Possibilist Porch and Greenhouse, Project one: Ziying Huang (LARP), Pedro Medrano (ARCH), Jackson Plumlee (CPLN), Marissa Marie Sayers (CPLN), Youzi (Olivia) Xu (LARP). 

Garden Design and Book, Project two: Siran Chen (LARP), Kathryn Dunn (LARP), Elizabeth Servito (LARP), Catherine Valverde (LARP).

Ground Paint and Surface Treatment, Project three: Huiyi An (LARP), Yuhan Wang (LARP), Zhong (Clara) Xin (ARCH). 

Furniture, Project four: Hadi El Kebbi (ARCH), Daniel Flinchbaugh (LARP), Jamaica Reese-Julien (ARCH+CPLN). 


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