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Multi-Use Public Schools


An Equity Problem

Public schools in Chicago are being closed in large numbers after being labelled "underutilized." Meanwhile, Chicago residents need more community hubs. Public schools are meant to be a public service for all. Their buildings hold significant historic value, and they are conveniently well-distributed throughout residential areas. How might we better utilize public school infrastructure to serve more local residents?



Since public schools are meant to serve students equally city-wide, instead of demolishing them, we should be finding ways to improve them. Once reprogrammed with resources and training for both children and adults, a regular farmer's market, community activities, and a variety of social services, public schools can transform into hubs of genuine public service and community.

scheduling diagram


Our commitment to systems-thinking demands us to investigate root causes. With this in mind, our interview questions for users are shaped by some foundational questions that we ask ourselves as a team.

  • How can we take advantage of the walkability of elementary schools throughout residential areas?
  • How do nearby residents currently interact with their closest public elementary school, with or without kids?
  • Which existing programs/services do public schools offer residents? What are the challenges they face?
  • How can high-quality historic school buildings be reused?
  • How can the school schedule be adjusted to accomodate the larger community activities?


Historic buildings designed and built with craftsmanship currently suffering from neglect.

thumbnails of public schools in Austin
Chicago public schools in Austin neighborhood, 2012.

This intervention recognizes that existing public school buildings are both beautiful and accessibly dispersed (within walking distance of most Chicagoan's homes) almost perfectly throughout residential neighborhoods.

public schools shown against Chicago's residential zones, 2011.

Validating Assumptions

We conducted user interviews with residents, schools, and service providers to validate our initial assumptions.

Thanks to the many stakeholders who offered their valuable feedback.



Based on our research, we brainstormed numerous ideas/features for our proposed solution. They ranged from converting abandon school buildings into vertical farms to co-working spaces empty classrooms.

The design direction we took prioritized features that capitalized on the expertise of service partners. This includes social service providers with long-standing experience working with schools, after-school programs, and neighborhood agencies.


Design Iterations

After weighing effort and impact, we devised small slices of our solution to test.

Previous Iterations

Our entry for Design Makes Change's Sweet Homes Chicago 2012 competition won 1st place! Many thanks to the organizers, jurors, and supporters.

Please contact us about how to get involved.