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 infrastructure, 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 every place we go, 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 for offering a range of innovative educational programming in public space. Built like a stage case, each Uni unfolds to reveal different experiences for the public. 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. The original READ offers a curated collection of books and a place to sit and read. 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 the Uni visits.
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 the 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 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 a number of 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
We’ve successfully deployed Uni programs over 500 times since 2011 and have engaged more than 30,000 people—a majority of them children. Many thousands more have seen the Uni in passing. We’ve worked in more than 140 different New York City public spaces and have earned the trust of community hosts and city agencies in each location. We now reach more than 45 neighborhoods annually, providing a total of 150 days of programming. Through partnerships with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation and NYC Dept. of Transportation, we target underserved parks and plazas, and spend 85% of our time in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Today, the Uni Project is the only entity providing programming in such a wide variety of public spaces, and the organization is uniquely positioned to have a sustained, positive impact on the street-level experience of New York City. Other cities are taking note—we’ve made 31 Uni kits for libraries and organizations around the world to date.
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. 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 an agile, 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. We also aim to put Uni kits in the hands of more local NYC partners, training and supporting them as they copy our model. 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, the latter of which totaled 50% of overall revenue in 2016.