Urban Periscopes in Harlem

Urban Periscopes is the winner of KaBoom’s Play Everywhere design challenge. KaBoom has long advocated for access to play as a matter of public and child health, and Play Everywhere aimed to bring stimulation to so-called “play deserts” across the US where typical playgrounds were generally inaccessible.

The project proposed three tall, rotatable periscopes, built out of PVC tubes, that would mount to bus stops around the Barrio - East Harlem - in New York. These devices will include interchangeable lenses that overlay stories of resilience and care-taking within the neighborhood’s hispanic communities onto views of the modern streetscape. The project, featured in the New York Times and CityLab, will give young residents new views of places they know so well.

A short animation I created to explain our project to the children and their parents at LSA.

Role: Lead designer,
workshop facilitator, animation producer
Team: Andrea Morales Coto, Amanda Astorga Pinto and Corey Chao
Partner: Little Sisters Association (LSA) in East Harlem
Winner of KaBoom Play Everywhere
Published in New York Times.

Community Co-creation

All too often, designers "helicopter" in and out of a community without actually taking into account if their design is needed at all. We knew, through the research provided by KaBoom, that play is necessary for the neurological development of children, and that underserved communities have less access to play. But how do you choose amongst all possible communities in the boroughs?

To answer this, we started thinking about the concept of a periscopes itself, and what if grants those in submarines. It is usually a vantage point, a source of perspective, almost a military and political statement of gaze in itself. So, which communities could use periscopes in unexpected ways? Immediately, we started thinking about two main ones: those that are heavily policed, and those that are suspected to be most affected by climate change. In the case of New York City, that made us think of Crown Heights and Flatbush, communities known for their struggle for civil rights, and East Harlem, home to Latinxs from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Central America. We chose the later due to my ethnicity (I am Latina), and the fact that we quickly found an esteemed community partner in the Little Sisters Association (LSA) in East Harlem. With that in place, we developed several workshops with the LSA community (mostly Mexican and Central American children and their families) to determine whether the idea appealed to them or not at all.


The prototyping process was a long 4 months (you can read a more detailed breakdown of it over at the project's blog). We kept trying to introduce political empowerment aspects to the periscopes only to find ourselves beyond our depth with the historical aspects of El Barrio (East Harlem). We reached out to experts in the history of the community and the struggle for Latinx rights, and eventually found ourselves comfortable with the idea of including empowering written messages in the periscopes, only to bring these to children and find that they were far too complex. Eventually, we decided to aspire to express empowerment through the object itself, giving the periscopes physical attributes (color, filters, bulkiness, etc) that would invited children almost exclusivelly and then offer completely new ways of seeing the world. We partnered with local artists to make sure the periscopes reflected the community and kept doing workshops with the LSA community to ensure that we were on the right track.

Out on the streets

We took our final prototype to a lighting round of prototyping on the streets near LSA. With more than 20 children and their families in tow, we paraded around the corners of East Harlem testing out the best locations for our periscope, asking children what they thought of the periscopes and the lenses, and meeting strangers on the street while asking them for their opinions. We got some very interesting feedback: in the case of the political undertones, simpler is better, and in the case of the actual build of the periscope, we definitely have to make it flashier and more in tune with the aesthetics children are used to. But, overall, we hope that the results of this prototype are enough to apply to set up permanent periscopes in the rest of East Harlem.