About the Uni Project
The Uni Project is a 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, 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. 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 each place the Uni visits.
The Uni attracts attention 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 educational materials increases and people’s sense of community safety increases, especially for children, women, and families. People walk away feeling good about themselves, their community, and the city. These outcomes have positive implications for several long-standing urban issues, including educational achievement gaps, social isolation, and community fragmentation.
“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 deployed over 500 times in more than 140 different public spaces in New York City since 2011, and we’ve engaged more than 30,000 people, a majority children. We now reach an average of 60 neighborhoods annually (85% low- to moderate-income), providing a total of 150 days of programming. Today, we’re the only entity providing programming in such a wide variety of public spaces in New York City, and the Uni Project is uniquely positioned to have a sustained, positive impact on the street-level experience of the city. Other cities are taking note, and we’ve made 31 Uni kits for organizations and municipalities around the world.
Cities everywhere are facing pressures that threaten their social fabric. Here in NYC, low-income neighborhoods need better, safer public spaces, and youth and families need more good, free things to do together. There is tremendous potential in the far-flung communities of New York City, but also the possibility of disillusionment and disintegration as the city grows ever larger. The Uni is a new kind of amenity that can serve multiple neighborhoods, improving the quality of life and making communities feel valued and connected to the city at large. In the years ahead, we want to reach father into the boroughs, continue to offer new programs, and put small-scale kits in the hands of partners to implement locally on their own. The result will be an urban landscape transformed and a city recognized for pioneering a new approach to activating public space and fostering a culture of learning.
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. Since 2015, we have had strategic partnerships with both NYC Parks and NYC Dept. of Transportation to program underserved public spaces. In 2018, we began a residency at NYDesigns.
The Uni Project was founded by Leslie and Sam Davol, who run the organization with the help of a 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.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” – person on a bike, Parkside Plaza, Brooklyn
“You actually see everybody hanging out together, and it seems like nobody has any animosity.” – teen at playstreet, Morrisania, Bronx
“It makes me feel like I can do anything”
– Siqlani, 10, E. Harlem playstreet
“Do you have to go? This is the best company I’ve had all week.” – 12 yr old boy at the Uni with his two brothers at Ozone Park Plaza, Queens
“You are doing a great thing here. You should do this all over.” – Man passing by the Uni at Marcy Plaza, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
“Your program is excellent. The only request would be more days!” – Darma Diaz, with BACDYS, manager of Ozone Park Plaza
“The programming the Uni provides to communities, parks and plazas is unique and special in that it caters to young people, which in turn brings parents and entire families. We are sorely lacking in that kind of participation on our largely male-dominated space, and the Uni brings a community feel to our space.” – Eirik Gislason, Friends of Diversity Plaza
“My staff had a positive experience having the opportunity to engage with the community patrons outside of the branch setting. The idea of having books and information accessible beyond the four walls of the library setting allows us to reach a new audience of patrons that are not aware of what we offer. This is definitely something I would participate in again.”
– Melissa Davis, Library Manager, Clasons Point Branch, NYPL, Soundview, Bronx
The Uni is a public space project that transforms each host site, offering visitors a special urban experience—enjoyable, educational, simple, direct, and out-of-the-ordinary. —Betty Chen, NYC Planning Commission