A colorful, whimsical place to sit is the latest step—after fancied-up outdoor stairs—in making Silver Spring’s Carroll Avenue/Quebec Terrace neighborhood safer through art and design.

Ronit Eisenbach, a professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, collaborated with the student group Roots: Home & Abroad to design and install four benches equipped for both relaxation and play last month in the YMCA community center’s new LightScape Rain Garden. Eisenbach is the lead designer and artistic director for the project.

The benches are temporary fixtures in the raingarden, providing a place for youth to socialize with each other or delve into a book until next summer, when permanent seating, which will illuminate at night, is installed.

The garden is not only an inviting space, but a future home for STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts and math) and sustainability programs. The spongy soil and plants in the garden clean and absorb water, helping to keep the Chesapeake Bay healthy. Additionally, the benches were constructed with recycled wooden pallets.

Nic Przybocki ‘19, vice president of Roots: Home & Abroad, became involved with the project to promote a healthier and more sustainable community, a core mission of the organization. He led the construction of the benches, bringing together club and community members and culminating with a paint party with middle school students to decorate them.

“We want to show that something that’s discarded or trashed can be reused as something that’s fun and safe,” said Pryzbocki.

Two decades ago, this neighborhood struggled with a wave of drug-related crime and violence.  A 1997 report by the Montgomery County Police Department stated that “residents became prisoners in their own homes,” catalyzing a plan to enhance the quality of life in the area.

Adults and youth in the community have since built on these efforts; they have been working for nearly a decade with local organizations, Arts on the Block and YMCA’s Youth and Family Services, to create, then implement a public art plan.

In 2011, children transformed two formerly gang-tagged staircases to the community center and a nearby elementary school. A teaching artist from the nonprofit  Arts on the Block led the project to create mosaic murals and adding light poles in an effort to reduce littering and bullying and present a more inviting community space.    

Following the staircase project, the community reported an overall improvement in feelings of safety in the area. The number of residents who felt “very unsafe” decreased 35 percent, and the number of residents who felt “very safe” increased by 5 percent, according to an Arts on the Block survey.

Working with local youth, especially those interested in art and design, is essential because they should be a part of bettering the world they live in, said Anne L’Ecuyer, executive director of Arts on the Block.

“We want to involve them in the earliest possible stages to create a career path for themselves,” she said.

See more photos of the project here.