Hip Hop Architecture Camp Brings Urban Planning to Summer Programming

It's a summer session of architecture, music, culture, and fun.

Last summer, more than 30 kids participated in the week-long Hip Hop Architecture Camp at St. Louis County Library’s (SLCL) Natural Bridge Branch. During the session, campers age 11 to 14 worked with architects, urban planners, designers, hip hop artists, and each other to create ideas for developing the area around the St. Louis Metro’s North Hanley Transit Center, a large hub in the city’s light rail and bus system.

Campers work on their vision for North Hanley Metro Station. All photos by Kara Hays Smith

Hip Hop Architecture Camp is the brainchild of Michael Ford, a Detroit native long fascinated by the impact of architecture on culture. Recently Ford, who is also one of the co-founders of the Urban Arts Collective, contacted SLCL about running the program again in the summer of 2019. Plans are in the early stages, but SLCL is excited to offer Hip Hop Architecture Camp again this summer, this time to a group of teens to give them the opportunity to develop a new vision for their community and encourage them to explore possibilities for their own lives.

Hip Hop Architecture camps began in 2017 and have been held in New York, Cleveland, Dallas, Toronto, Austin, and Portland, OR. Public libraries, as well as universities, museums, high schools, performing arts centers, and architectural associations have hosted the sessions. In St. Louis, Ford worked closely with the kids as he does at each camp.

Camp founder Mike Ford works with St. Louis kids.

St. Louis’ campers took light rail from the branch to the Hanley stop, exploring and brainstorming together about what features and amenities might make it more attractive. The group visited the transit center and heard from Metro officials and the St. Louis County Planning Department about making the area more of a focal point for activity and community building.

The North Hanley Transit Center is in an area with great potential for redevelopment. Few alterations have been made since the stop opened in 1993, but that may change soon. A group of property owners, stakeholders, and developers are soliciting ideas for a mixed-use project that addresses the needs within the nearby business and residential areas, as well as those of the transit users. Within a three-mile radius of the hub are major St. Louis employers Boeing, Emerson, Express Scripts, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and St. Louis Lambert Airport.

Back at the library, campers identified issues in the community that urban planning could help address, including crime, gun violence, and homelessness. Kids divided into six groups to create new visions for the area using LEGOs and large maps. Using the 3D modeling software Tinkercad, they designed buildings such as libraries, child care and recreation centers , museums, and stores, then printed them using the library’s 3D printers.

“The kids did an amazing job reimagining the site,” says library director Kristen Sorth, who attended the sessions. “They incorporated features that address community as well as commuter needs.”

Since becoming director in 2013, Sorth has looked for partnership opportunities that make programs such as Hip Hop Architecture Camp possible. Many of the architects and designers involved in the camp are with firms now working on the library’s capital improvement campaign.

Rapper Chingy (right) visited camp and helped the kids create a music video, one of the week's highlights.

Chingy, a St. Louis rapper best known for his hit, “Right Thurr,” visited the camp to help the kids write a rap about their vision for St. Louis. Chingy also participated in judging a rap battle—the winners recorded their rap at the Ex’Treme Institute’s studio. The kids, adult volunteers, and library staff were thrilled to work with Chingy, who brought along fellow rapper, MC. Their input energized the participants and sparked even greater enthusiasm for the project.

On the final day of the camp, kids created a music video to accompany the rap, filming segments at St. Louis landmarks including the Arch, Busch Stadium, and the Old Courthouse. It was a typically hot summer day in the city, but everyone persisted despite the heat.

A screening of the video took place in September at the Florissant Valley Branch. At the North County Transit Center in Ferguson where participants, family, friends, Metro officials, and the public talked discussed the kids’ ideas. Participants proudly explained their plans and what went into creating them.

The camp was presented in partnership with the Urban Arts Collective, a non-profit focused on increasing the number of underrepresented groups in STEAM careers, and software provider Autodesk, Inc. Ford, also known as “The Hip Hop Architect,” facilitated the camp. It benefited the library, partners and participants and the campers have already made an impact with their input.

Jessica Mefford-Miller, executive director of Metro Transit, said, “We’re on the same page with these kids. They opened our eyes to a lot of opportunities—thinking about green spaces and recreation and services like day care that we don’t offer. Not yet, anyway!”

With Hip Hop Architecture, the library reinforced its goal to offer STEAM programs and partnering opportunities. Staff learned valuable lessons in planning the week-long camp, a process that took several months. Most importantly, the kids got exposure to what architects and planners do, increasing the likelihood that they will pursue an affiliated career.


Julie Cruise is publications coordinator at St. Louis County Library.

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