About the Uni Project
The Uni Project is a 501c3 nonprofit that brings learning opportunities to public space in New York City.
Using custom-designed installations, we pop up in parks, plazas, and other public spaces to offer reading, drawing, and hands-on experiences that let New Yorkers embrace the act of learning. We partner with community-based organizations and city agencies, and we prioritize underserved locations. We also send kits around the world so that others can copy our model.
We put learning on an urban stage to improve the lives of New Yorkers, build community, and make education a visible, enjoyable part of urban life.
- Deploy custom-designed installations that make learning an attraction
- Offer high-quality materials, experienced staff, and thoughtful curation
- Provide a good experience with learning for people of all ages
- Reach large numbers of New Yorkers and neighborhoods using a pop-up approach
- Go where we’re invited by community leaders and organizations
- Provide kits to others so that they can copy what we do
Achievements since 2011 launch
- Nearly 300 deployments on the street in 51 neighborhoods
- Over 12,000 New Yorkers participating (nearly 4,000 in 2015 alone)
- Thousands more passersby observing people reading or drawing at the Uni
- Hosting partnerships with over 40 different neighborhood groups and community organizations
- Strategic city-wide partnerships with city agencies: NYC Parks and NYC DOT
- Programmatic partnerships with all three of the city’s libraries and other cultural/educational institutions
- Twelve reading room kits built for libraries and others around the world who are copying our model
- Wherever the Uni goes, people gather. People are transformed into readers, artists, and learners on a kind of stage, and they feel proud. Neighborhoods are transformed into places where a value of learning can be recognized, promoted and shared.
- Access to a learning environment and high-quality educational materials increases, and people spend more time engaged in learning.
- People’s sense of community safety increases, and public spaces are made more welcoming to all, especially children, women, and families.
- People love the experience of learning and walk away feeling good about themselves, their community, and the city.
- All of these outcomes have positive implications for a number of long-standing urban issues, including educational achievement gaps, equity, and community cohesion.
The Uni Project is run by husband and wife Leslie and Sam Davol, with the help of part-time seasonal staff and a team of nearly 40 volunteers. The organization has a six-member board, as well as an advisory board. The work is funded by a combination of revenue earned from program fees (paid on a sliding scale by community host partners), and donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
History and awards
The first Uni reading room was launched via a crowd-funding campaign and put into service on September 11, 2011. Right away, the Uni was hailed as a “groundbreaking idea” by Library Journal, and libraries from around the world began to contact the Uni Project to implement similar solutions. In 2012, the Uni was featured in the exhibit “Spontaneous Interventions” in the U.S. Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia. In 2013 the Uni Project was awarded an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation. In 2014, the Uni was a winner of the Mayor of Boston’s Public Space Invitational, leading to a portable open-air reading room for Boston. In 2015, the Uni Project expanded its programs to offer other kinds of educational opportunities with the launch its DRAW NYC program.
The Uni Project grew out of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by Leslie and Sam Davol called Street Lab, which created award-winning programs for downtown Boston from 2006-2010. Projects ranged from an outdoor community film festival in a vacant lot, to dance workshops in public space, all as part of a search for meaningful activities to activate urban spaces. Street Lab’s final project in Boston, the Chinatown Storefront Library, earned Leslie and Sam a Governor’s Citation and solidified a commitment to bring learning experiences to the street-level urban environment. In 2011, Leslie and Sam launched the Uni, a portable reading room for New York City, and made the Uni Project the sole focus of their work.
The Need for the Uni
What we see at street level in many urban neighborhoods does not reflect our aspirations for ourselves and our society. If we’re serious about having a well-educated society, let’s build cities where learning experiences are prominent, accessible, and enjoyable. Let’s show off our best teachers, librarians, and educators doing great work, and give them opportunities to adapt their craft to a public setting. The Uni takes learning public.
Many urban residents, especially children, do not have easy access to books and places to read outside of school. Electronic communication, video games, and online socializing are sapping more and more of our attention. We seem to be losing touch with books at the very moment, and in the very places, we need them the most. The Uni brings back the book.
Cities need new solutions that are lighter-weight, more flexible, less expensive to operate, and better integrated into our patterns of daily life. We’re inspired by Project for Public Spaces‘ call for “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” solutions.The Uni anticipates a future when cities become still more dense, space even more expensive, and fast-paced social, environmental, and technological change are the norm. At the same time, the Uni recalls a past when we gathered around to hear the news, absorb a story, or learn a skill from another person. The Uni gives us a new place to do what we’ve done throughout history—gather together and be better for it.
Large institutions want to be able to reach new audiences efficiently and develop new outlets for their work. Small institutions may simply need a public platform. In all cases, it is a challenge for institutions to implement programs outside their walls. The Uni provides them with a way to do this. Significantly, it also provides a place to experiment and learn new engagement strategies that work equally well “back home” in more traditional environments. The Uni supports existing institutions.
We see a growing demand for the kinds of experiences the Uni offers—opportunities to read, learn, exchange ideas and share expertise. The demand is coming from younger people eager to discover new affinity groups and find alternative ways of socializing; from families looking for the right kinds of environmental “inputs” for their growing kids; from seniors looking for more accessible activities; and from visitors looking for unique experiences that reveal the values and culture of a place. We think all these people will appreciate the Uni’s programming, but also its “walk-up” interface, which allows individuals to approach, observe and decide on-the-fly whether or how much to participate. Even those who don’t directly participate will appreciate the effort being made to give books, learning, and ideas a prominent place at street level in the city. The Uni provides a meaningful experience at street-level.