About the Uni Project
The Uni Project is a 501c3 nonprofit that creates learning environments in public space across 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 for all ages. We partner with community organizations and city agencies, and we prioritize underserved locations. We also send kits around the world so that other cities can copy our model. We do this work to improve the urban environment, strengthen New York City neighborhoods, and make education a visible, enjoyable part of urban life.
What’s a Uni?
The Uni began as a portable reading room but has since expanded into a platform that offers a range of educational programming in public space. Contained in a stage case, each Uni unfolds to reveal different programming elements. DRAW turns the Uni into a portable drawing studio, with fine art materials to use alongside an artist-in-residence. EXPLORE brings natural science to the street with microscopes, magnifying glasses, and specimens. SOLVE offers math and spatial reasoning puzzles. BUILD offers hands-on design and engineering challenges. And of course there is the original READ, which offers a curated collection of books and creates a place to sit and read together. Everything is free to the public and overseen by professional staff with support from volunteers. Award-winning designs elevate the look and feel of public space in each place we visit. We choose our locations based on requests from community groups and city partners, and we focus on low-income neighborhoods.
The Uni attracts attention wherever it goes and encourages community gathering. People are transformed into readers, artists, and learners on a kind of stage, and feel proud. Neighborhoods are transformed into places where a value of learning can be recognized, promoted and shared. Access to books and other educational materials increases. Community safety increases, and public spaces are made more welcoming to all, especially to children, women, and families. People love the experience and walk away feeling good about themselves, their community, and the city. These outcomes have positive implications for long-standing urban issues, including educational achievement gaps, social isolation, and community fragmentation. The Uni unlocks the potential of communities.
“You actually see everybody hanging out together, and it seems like nobody has any animosity.” – Teen at the Uni at a Bronx play street
“The Uni transforms each host site, offering visitors access to a special urban experience – enjoyable, educational, simple, direct, and out-of-the-ordinary.” – Betty Chen, Commissioner, NYC Planning Commission
To date, we’ve successfully deployed the Uni in more than 140 different public spaces across the city and have earned the trust of community hosts and city agencies in each location. We’ve honed our programming over thousands of hours on the street, and we’re still improving. In short, we’ve built an organization that is uniquely positioned to have a sustained, positive impact on the street-level experience of NYC neighborhoods.
- Over 500 deployments since 2011, with six Uni kits operating in NYC;
- 150 days of programming each year, reaching 70 neighborhoods;
- 7,500+ New Yorkers engaged annually—a majority of them children;
- Many thousands more see the Uni in passing;
- 85% of our time is spent in low-income communities;
- Strategic partnerships with NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation and NYC Dept. of Transportation to target underserved spaces;
- Programmatic partnerships with libraries and cultural institutions;
- 31 reading room kits built for other cities around the world.
Cities everywhere are facing pressures that threaten their social fabric. Here in NYC, communities need safer, better public spaces and low-income youth and families need good, free things to do near their homes. From Corona, Queens, to Brownsville, Brooklyn, there is tremendous potential in the far-flung neighborhoods of New York City but also the possibility of disintegration as the city grows ever larger. The Uni is a efficient, tactical solution that shares resources where they are needed most, making people and communities feel valued and connected to the city at large. We’re ready to double our deployments and fulfill more requests. At the same time, we’re eager to expand the sale of our kits to other cities to help fund our work in NYC. The result will be an urban landscape transformed and a city recognized for pioneering a new approach to activating public space and building community with quality programming.
History and awards
The first Uni was launched on September 11, 2011 via a crowd-funding campaign. 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 make them reading room kits. In 2012, the Uni was featured in the U.S. exhibition “Spontaneous Interventions” at the Architecture Biennale in Venice. In 2013, the Uni Project was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize. In 2014, the Uni was a winner of Boston’s Public Space Invitational.
The Uni Project was founded by Sam and Leslie Davol, who run the organization with the help of one full-time Program and Operations Manager, seven part-time seasonal staff, and a team of 40+ volunteers. The organization has a eight-member board and is funded by individuals, foundations, corporations, and government, including the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition, the organization earns revenue from program fees and from the sale of kits.