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 for New Yorkers of all ages. 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 do this work to improve the urban environment, strengthen communities, and make education a visible, enjoyable part of urban life.
We offer three programs citywide and are launching a fourth next year. Our READ program is a portable reading room that offers a curated collection of high-quality, multilingual books and a place to read together. It includes a book review activity and partnerships with libraries, museums, and other NYC institutions. Our DRAW program is a portable drawing studio that shares high-quality art materials and creates a place for the public to draw together. It includes activities contributed by artists and features artists-in-residence. SOLVE lets people try math and spatial reasoning puzzles together. We are actively developing more programs in this series, including BUILD, which will include Imagination Playground blocks. All of our installations are overseen by dedicated staff and a corp of volunteers. Everything is presented in award-winning infrastructure that is custom designed to elevate the look and feel of public spaces.
We offer these programs for free or for a fee on a sliding scale, as much as our capacity and funding allows, to any community group seeking to enhance public space. Our goal is to reach all New York City neighborhoods with the same high quality programming. Our circuit includes some of New York City’s most visited and prominent public spaces as well as historically underserved communities.
Our installations attract attention wherever they go and encourage 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. People’s sense of community safety increases, and public spaces are made more welcoming to all, especially to children and families. People love the experience and walk away feeling good about themselves, their community, and the city.
“The Uni is a public space project that 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
- Nearly 400 deployments in 62 NYC neighborhoods
- 85% of our work is in low-income communities
- Over 21,000 New Yorkers engaged in learning opportunities in public
- Many thousands more have observed our installations in passing
- Partnerships with 70 community host organizations
- Strategic partnerships with NYC Parks and NYC DOT to target underserved neighborhoods
- Programmatic partnerships with all three of the city’s libraries and with other cultural institutions
- Special initiatives focused on parks and pedestrian plazas, community safety, and educational achievement gaps.
- 28 reading room kits built for libraries and others around the world
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 is run by husband and wife, Sam and Leslie Davol, with the help of part-time seasonal staff and a team of 40+ volunteers. The organization has a seven-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 partners), donations from individuals, foundations, corporations, and contracts and grants from government sources.
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.