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Pilsen garden shows how one small nonprofit is enhancing public spaces, one small project at a time

The nonprofit Human Scale was started by four friends who met in the UIC architecture program.

Hsu Myat Aung works on “The Hive” at the El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen.
Hsu Myat Aung works on The Hive at Pilsen’s El Paseo Community Garden in August.
Provided

El Paseo Community Garden’s shed was nearly a decade old, and it showed.

So Paula Acevedo, who runs the garden in Pilsen with her husband, Antonio Acevedo, met with four friends from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s architecture program to see what could be done.

The four had just launched a nonprofit, Human Scale, to design and build public projects.

Thanks to them, “we ended up getting so much more than a shed,” said Paula Acevedo.

What they got was The Hive, a learning space at the garden.

The Hive has benches, work stations and a cafe stand. There’s a chalkboard and cubbies for storing jump ropes and toys.

Paula Acevedo said they also host “kids’ garden days” inside the outdoor classroom. And a roof keeps everyone dry during sudden downpours.

“Even though the design was targeted for kids, it really created an important space for our community that is heavily used,” Paula Acevedo said.

A family stops at The Hive at El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen.
A family stops at The Hive at El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

That design was the work of Walmer Saavedra, Aylen Pacheco, Jorge Mayorga and Hsu Myat Aung, who started Human Scale to enhance public spaces on Chicago’s South and West sides.

Besides the Pilsen garden, Human Scale designed three accessible planter stations for Englewood’s Veterans Garden. They also are designing a pergola, shed and walkways for seniors at Hart Peace Community Garden in Austin. Each project cost under $15,000.

The quartet behind Human Scale moved to Chicago from outside the United States. Myat Aung is from Thailand; Pacheco and Mayorga are from Mexico.

And Saavedra emigrated from Guatemala at age 7.

“I grew up in West Lawn and there aren’t a lot of public spaces there,” Saavedra said. “When we traveled through the North Side we would see dog parks and all of these beautifully designed public spaces, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything similar to that in the South Side.”

The four met in UIC’s architecture program; three have graduated, and Pacheco is on track to do so in 2020. At the school, they developed a passion for creating thoughtful designs.

“I feel we have the power to create change as architects,” Saavedra said. “We can make social change with our designs and we hold a great responsibility to be the driver for those changes.”

Myat Aung said the group focuses on smaller projects like The Hive because they can mean more to people.

“The processes behind our designs were primarily focused to fill the gap of what the community needs but also to enhance the impact upon an individual user,” said Myat Aung.

Doing that requires listening to people, Mayorga said.

They meet with residents for each project, asking them to write down “what is it that they need, and how do they want the design to work,” Mayorga said.

Human Scale co-founders (from left) Walmer Saavedra, Aylen Pacheco and Jorge Mayorga meet at UIC’s Academic and Residential Complex.
Human Scale co-founders (from left) Walmer Saavedra, Aylen Pacheco and Jorge Mayorga meet at UIC’s Academic and Residential Complex.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Through that process, Human Scale learned El Paseo Community Garden offered more than raised planting beds; residents also raised bees to produce honey. That inspired the honeycomb-shaped design, an homage to the Langstroth hive — a type of human-made beehive.

“There are politics of space that need to be considered whenever you are designing for a community because every community is different,” said Pacheco, 21. “Architecture, wherever it is, affects the social implications of the space.”

Ultimately, Pacheco said, how public spaces are designed determines how people interact with each other.

“If done right, there is more empowerment in the community because it is not just about the beautification of the community but providing social spaces they can all thrive in,” Pacheco said.

Judith DeJong, associate professor of architecture at UIC, praised Human Scale’s efforts.

“That these students do this work in addition to their full-time studies and/or employment is a testament to their tenacity and commitment to bringing high-quality design to wider audiences in Chicago,” DeJong said.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.