The Civic Playground Project

Leighton Beaman & Zaneta Hong

Assoc. Prof. of Practice, Human Centered Design; Asst. Prof., Landscape Architecture

  • March 4-22, 2024

  • John Hartell Gallery, Sibley Hall

Leighton Beaman
is a designer, writer, and educator with a focus on emerging design practices and their impact on material culture, environmental sustainability, and socially responsible. He co-founded GAC, a design-build nonprofit organization operating in East Africa and the US. GAC gained recognition as a Design Game Changer by Metropolis Magazine and was named Northeast Firm of the Year by the Architect’s Newspaper. GAC has received numerous awards from institutions such as the American Institute of Architects, Architizer, and the Architectural League of NY. GAC’s work has been showcased worldwide, including the Venice Biennale, Yale University, Architectural Institute of Japan and the Technical University of Munich. Beaman also co-directs Material Propositions, a design-research lab engaged in speculative material futures.  Their work has been exhibited at Harvard University, University of Cincinnati, and Cornell University. Leighton serves as an Associate Professor of Practice at Cornell University, where he instructs seminars on creating immersive atmospheres, sustainable design, and socio-spatial-technical innovation. He has a distinguished teaching history at institutions including Harvard University, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Texas. He has contributed to various publications, editorial boards, and has been recognized as an American Academy visiting Artist and MacDowell Fellow.

Zaneta Hong is an Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture. Trained as a landscape architect and industrial designer, her teaching and research focus centers on material ecologies, landscape technologies, and sustainable practices. Prior to her arrival at Cornell, she worked at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, University of Virginia, and University of Texas in Austin. Her work has been recognized by the Graham Foundation and Environmental Design Research Association, and she has been awarded the 2018-19 Garden Club of America Rome Prize Fellowship, MacDowell Fellowship, Certificate of Teaching Excellence by the Harvard Derek Bok Center, and Excellence in Teaching Award by the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. Her ongoing research has appeared in publications including Designing Landscape Architectural Education, Innovations in Landscape Architecture, Living Systems: Innovative Materials & Technologies for Landscape Architecture, International Journal of Interior Architecture & Spatial Design, and the Journal of Landscape Architecture. In addition to teaching, Zaneta is the Co-Director of The Materials Propositions Lab and a Research + Design Consultant for GA Collaborative.

Play is a powerful strategy for promoting free expression and collaboration, generating a dynamic platform for individuals to engage in open, varied, and unstructured activities that facilitate self-expression, social interaction, and shared experiences. In human-centered design, play allows for the co-creation of ideas and solutions, fostering creativity and innovation. From a sociological perspective, the play transcends societal boundaries and hierarchies, acting as a common ground for people from various demographics to interact and bridge differences. In positive psychology, play has been recognized as an essential channel for emotional release, stress reduction, and self-discovery, providing a safe and liberating outlet for one’s thoughts and feelings. Toys, as symbolic tools of play, act as mediators and establish safe frameworks that encourage individuals to collaborate, engage in imaginative exploration, and collectively express themselves, serving as facilitators and catalysts for the transformative experience of play. Play isn’t solely an activity but a positive state of mind which can be experienced with others.

The Civic Playground Project is based on our collective design research and practices focused on community involvement and cultural understanding in creating shared built environments at multiple scales. Past projects – such as the Lumina Pavilions at the University of Virginia -worked with students and the surrounding community to address racist protests in 2017 through an inclusive design-build project – Material Translations, at the American Academy in Rome. This project examined the use of cultural artifacts to grasp how making and materials are part of cultural identity; the numerous projects conducted with GAC, our design non-profit work in East Africa centered around community-engaged design and building projects, all illustrate a commitment to fostering community dialogue through shared acts of making. The Civic Playground Project continues this work through the process of play, participants’ engagement in dialogue, negotiation, and cooperation as they work together to manipulate, combine, and transform civic toys to create something both shared and unique. This shared experience fosters communication, problem-solving, and empathy, encouraging individuals to learn from one another and build connections – ultimately strengthening their collaborative skills and promoting unity among participants with a safe space for expression.

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