LA students use arts and design thinking to envision a more water-wise city

Priska Neely/ KPCC
Priska Neely, 89.3 KPCC
May 18, 2016

This story originally posted by 89.3 KPCC, Southern California Public Radio.

Ask teams of elementary school kids to imagine ways that residents of Los Angeles can conserve water, and you'll hear some flights of childish fancy, but you'll also hear some ideas that have been endorsed by experts.

That's what a panel of city planners from the L.A. mayor's office, the board of public works and the sanitation department learned Tuesday when a City Hall hearing room was taken over by elementary and middle school students from four schools sharing their ideas. 

The project was born last year out of the Arts for LA ACTIVATE program, which trains residents in advocating for the arts. Dubbed the Young Citizen Artists Project, the program aims to give students experience with artistic, design thinking and opportunities for civic engagement.

"I was thinking about ways that our students could engage in their community in a civic way and how they could be advocates," said writer and Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts parent Sonny Calderon, who launched the project. "And I thought that doing art and design projects would be the best way for them to engage." 

Fourth graders at Calderon's school designed a model of a house equipped with a kitchen that filters and pumps waste water outside.

"The purpose of this project is to recycle water and water the plants," said fourth grader Liam Husain, before a panel of civic and environmental leaders that included Liz Crosson, water policy advisor for Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Heather Repenning, a commissioner on the LA City Board of Public Works.

Each team made prototypes of their proposals -- using cardboard, paper, paint bottles to build them. One team devised a barrel system to collect rain water; another suggested a public park with features to filter water.

“They’re kind of inspirational. Interacting with the youth is helpful from a long-range planning perspective,” said Arthi Varma, principal planner with the Pasadena Planning and Community Development department.

“Sometimes when you’re interacting with adults they come in with a different perspective, we’re maybe more attuned to the political realities. So sometimes it’s nice to have fresh ideas from children.”

Last year, Calderon worked with a class of third graders at LFCSA to complete designs linked to the LA River. 

This year, seven teams from LFCSA, Allessandro Elementary, Santa Rosa Charter Middle School, and Camino Nuevo Kayne Siart Middle School participated. This year they addressed goals of the city's One Water LA plan, which aims to get city departments collaborating with each other and the community to find solutions for water sustainability. 

"I think it is very important – especially at this age with elementary and middle school level – for the children to see themselves as change makers," said Evelyln Serrano, arts integration coordinator at LFCSA.

"With the project we created a space and a project for them to go through the design thinking process and for them to realize 'oh, I may be nine years old or 10 years old, but I am a citizen and I have a voice.'"

Many of the ideas the students proposed – like reusing shower water -- are things the city is trying.

"We weren’t expecting groundbreaking ideas," Lenise Marrero, an environmental engineer with the City of LA Sanitation, who manages the One Water LA project. "What we were expecting was to engage students and engage their parents and to get them involved in the process and get them to spread the word about all the solutions water conservation and for reusing water."

She says young people can be powerful messengers when it comes to conservation efforts and that was true back when the city started recycling trash and solids.

"We started going to the schools and that’s what made the difference because the kids will teach their parents – ok you have to put this in the blue bin and this in the black bin," said Marrero. "So the kids were actually our messengers."