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San Rafael, California 94901
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5th Grade City Planners!

Laurel Dell 2040 Photo smArchitect Shirl Buss describes our model program at Laurel Dell for this school year:

Laurel Dell’s 5th grade students have been invited to participate in the 2040 San Rafael General Plan planning process. The General Plan expresses the community’s vision of how and where our city will grow and change in the future. It’s an official document and covers topics such as housing, transportation, open space, arts and culture, natural resources, community design, public services, and safety. The intent of the General Plan is to envision how growth will be managed to protect the quality of life and make San Rafael more accessible, equitable, and vibrant for residents, businesses, and visitors.

The Plan is an opportunity for residents and leaders to think about and speak out about what we wish to preserve and what we wish to change. We will be adding youth voices to this process. The Plan will address issues that impact us all—including traffic, jobs, housing affordability, environmental quality, resilience, disaster preparedness, sea level rise, and public services.  Once the General Plan is adopted, City Council, local commissions, and city staff use it to make day-to-day decisions about our future.

For the “Real World Challenge” portion of their architectural residency, students will work collaboratively in hands-on in-class studios with architects and planners from Youth in Arts and UC Berkeley’s Y-PLAN. We will build upon the work we did last year for the Resilient by Design Challenge. We will research and make proposals about San Rafael’s future—from a youthful, but informed perspective, with a special focus on selected areas of the city (downtown, canals, open space, etc.) We will incorporate the academic focus on earth systems and apply this research to our recommendations.  The students will have an opportunity to present to the General Plan committee members.



Resilient by Design, step one: the Flood Fair

San Rafael is one of ten sites around the Bay Area included in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, a year-long collaborative design challenge to help Bay Area communities improve their resilience to flooding, natural disasters and rising seas. Youth in Arts’ Architects in Schools leaders Shirl Buss and Rich Storek, working with their fourth grade students from Laurel Dell Elementary School, helped to bring the Flood Fair to life with their young energy, beautiful scale models, and engaged fourth grade interviewers and docents.

The Bionic Team including Bionic Landscape, WXY Studio, and PennDesign are working with the San Rafael community to prepare a suite of design ideas for the San Rafael community. The Bionic Team began the challenge asking, “Where in the Bay Area can our expertise help?” And now matched with San Rafael, they’ve been asking residents “What needs to be done and where are we starting from?” Their first public event was the Flood Fair, held this Saturday at Pickleweed Park.

Thank you to Laurel Dell Fourth graders for helping to promote the event and making it relevant for all ages:

The Flood Fair was wonderful!  Considering the challenging weather and date, there was a rousing turnout of local community members, allies and leaders.  The student participation added an important dimension to the overall effort to inform, engage and enlist the community in our response to Sea Level Rise!  Students interviewed visitors and asked them:

Thanks Mr. Pepe Gonzalez for your enthusiastic support of the students!  Thanks again Marcel, Sarah and Rich, for creating such compelling “hands-on” activities:  the ice melt, the “flow” of water, the Flo Mo and all the displays, food and energy!


Members of the community admire the scale model


Students made a model of San Rafael, and Laurel Dell after sea level rise

Students made a model of San Rafael, and Laurel Dell after sea level rise

This was a beautiful way to bring together many different facets of the community to create implementable solutions to the environmental challenges we are all facing!

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!


Towers of Power and #MeToo

Image 8TOWERS OF POWER:  Snapshot of a Future I Want To Inhabit

By Shirl Buss, Ph.D.

I am an urban designer and educator.  One of the most joyful things I do is facilitate architecture and urban planning studios for elementary school children in public schools through Youth in Arts and UC Berkeley’s Y-PLAN.

Like many adults today, I am asking myself how—in my professional role—can I positively contribute to the #MeToo movement for and with the children in my life? How might I, when I work with young people, respond proactively to the gender inequities and injustices that we are witnessing every day?  How can I help both boys and girls express their own power, free from the distortions and abuses of sexism and racism?

In the 30+ years I have been working in the studio or classroom with children—even very young ones—I have observed how they all crave validation for who they are as human beings. Boys and girls openly express the desire to feel that they genuinely matter—to adults, as well as to each other.  They are also eager to energetically actualize their potential as makers, doers, and leaders.  Unfortunately the messages we all learn about gender and power are ingested at a very young age. Hence, in their quest for personal potency, children often adhere to traditionally defined masculine and feminine forms of power— to the detriment of both.

Within this context, I would like to share a very popular challenge that my colleagues and I pose for children when we start our architectural residencies in their classrooms. It’s called Towers of Power.

To begin, we ask each child to write down five distinctive adjectives describing his or her strengths and talents.  When they have a good list of descriptive words such as Creative, Athletic, Musical, Loyal, Friendly, Kind, Smart, they inscribe these words on colorful paper discs and put them aside. Each student then gets a 4” x 4” wooden base, a selection of recycled cabinetmaking wooden pieces, and glue.  Their mission is to build a model tower that may not exceed 20” in height nor extend beyond the perimeter of the base.  For the next hour or so, the students design and build model skyscrapers—testing structural forces, adding details, and creating their uniquely beautiful edifices. Because of the constraints on the project—especially the limit on height, and width— as the children build their towers they concentrate their energy on qualities such as elegance, strength, and balance. For a finishing touch they artfully affix the colored discs bearing their five adjectives and their name onto their tower.

When the towers are completed, we all step back and behold a stunning array of Towers of Power!  In that moment, all of us see an extraordinary “snapshot” of what an egalitarian future might look like. These beautiful structures—built by both boys and girls—stand before us adorned with proud adjectives describing each young architect. These towers stand tall, reflecting the shiny young people who so lovingly created them. They symbolize the many strengths, talents, and gifts these children have to share with the world.

At that point, we challenge the children to present their own tower to the group.  We often invite fellow architects and urban planners in to give the children feedback on their work during these presentations. One panelist, an architect, was nearly in tears while the children were sharing their towers.  She later told us, “It is so moving to see third grade children, girls in particular, stand before a crowd, and proudly proclaim, ‘I am strong.  I am talented. I am creative.’ What an affirming, empowering experience! I never had this opportunity when I was a girl.”

As I reflect upon this project and the hundreds of children who have built their Towers of Power over the years, I am moved to share it with everyone looking for light, optimism, and a new narrative about gender relations. Amidst the stories of sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination, this project shows that during those early years—before sexism and misogyny become inbred—we can help children define and experience power in new and different ways.

We as adults can, and should, play a role in creating a healthier culture where the pathways to power for both boys and girls are not based upon dominance and submission, but rather equity and mutuality. We can create opportunities for children to experience their personal power and agency with integrity, dignity, and respect. These beautiful children and their Towers of Power offer us all a vision of gender equity and redefined power. Together they compose an image of a future I want to inhabit — NOW!

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council! CAClogo_stackedRGB


Resilient by Design Challenge at Laurel Dell

IMG_8117by Architect Shirl Buss
We are continuing to investigate the Resilient by Design Challenge project question: What will keep my family, friends, community and me—safe, strong, and prepared for floods, earthquakes, sea level rise, and other environmental challenges?

With the focus on the transect from the SF Bay to Laurel Dell school—through the canals and flatlands predicted to flood in the coming years—the students each took a site, and a theme (“Designs to Respond to Sea Level Rise” or “Building a Strong Community”).  The bar charts show the students’ preferences for different elements.

In our studio, the students created study models to scale, anticipating where their proposal will be situated along the San Rafael flatlands and canals. Next week we will critique the study models, and work together to knit all of the proposals into a cohesive urban design scheme.  A big challenge.

Architect Ann West will be rejoining us, and adding her brilliance to the mix.

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!


Building Bridges at Laurel Dell

genesisBy Architect Shirl Buss
We hope everyone is safe and recovering from the horrible fires. The disaster highlights our need to enlist this generation of students as innovative designers and activists to meet the environmental challenges we are all facing today—and in the future.
I am happy to share that we had another very fruitful session with Mr. Belmont’s class last week—while we were all hunkered down keeping safe from the smoke.
The students created Friendship Bridges.  After seeing images of bridges from around the world and studying different bridge types, the students worked in pairs. Each pair built a bridge to symbolically represent their common strengths and interests.  We also introduced the first “Y-PLAN 5Cs” badge: Collaboration.
This is a very imaginative and capable group — with each team working smoothly and together to earn that badge, while building extraordinarily creative bridges.
Thanks again Mr. B and all!
Next up for this class: Animal Architecture (introduction to sustainable building).

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!


Architecture Begins at Laurel Dell


Laurel Dell 4th graders working on their Tower of Power sculptures

By Shirl Buss

We had a lovely first  Architects in Schools session with Mr. Belmont’s 4th grade students today at Laurel Dell Elementary School.

A Tower of Power in progress

After viewing some of the more interesting skyscrapers from around the world, each student created a thumbnail sketch of their favorite. Then they each identified 5 adjectives describing their own strengths, skills and talents.
Adhering to a set of constraints (no taller than 20″, no projections beyond the base) they designed and built their Towers of Power, incorporating the 5 adjectives and their name into the structure.  Finally three students proudly presented their Towers to the group, and received feedback from their peers.

Using glue to hold together a Tower

It was a great kick-off for our 10-week Youth in Arts / Y-PLAN residency.I am really looking forward to working collaboratively with Mr. B and this group over the next few months. The students are strong, creative, and articulate.

A finished Tower of Power

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!