A Library Free to All

Boston Public Library 

Expand library resources and visibility by creating free, open, and accessible outdoor spaces for nine branches of the library.

In the summer of 2022, Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Boston Public Library received a grant to improve access and visibility to library resources in nine underserved communities. This effort was in response to the impacts of the pandemic, which left many individuals relying on the library's essential services without access. Architecture for Public Benefit saw this project as ​​an opportunity to bring the library, its services, and its spaces beyond the institution's traditional boundaries to connect with the public in new ways. We developed an innovative and collaborative community engagement model that involved community partners throughout the entire design and build process. It began with interactive community workshops, done in partnership with Design4Equity, that highlighted the vision, identity, and distinct needs of each branch and its community. This effort was supported by detailed site surveys, librarian interviews, and the development of existing equipment inventories that built on the unique conditions of each site and engagement work that was done previously.

Boston Public Library Sketches
Community Engagment APB
BPL Community Engagment Method

In response to our research and community feedback, we developed a flexible and modular kit of parts with components that could be deployed in each site as needed. The system introduced a series of simple and open-ended pieces of furniture that could be assembled and aggregated by the public to serve a variety of functions, from an outdoor performance to an informal gathering space. The five types of furniture, ranging in size from tiny to large, were designed with ease of fabrication in mind and are made from four standard lengths of lumber. For the material, we selected high-density polyethylene, a colorful and weather-resistant lumber that would not fade or chip throughout the seasons and is composed of 98% recycled milk cartons. In addition to the modular furniture, new canopies were introduced to provide shade, light, and cooling mist. The canopies are made from durable and tear-resistant fabric and produce shade without catching any snow or leaves so that they can serve the community year-round with little maintenance for the busy library staff. The canopy structure reimagines the use and function of readymade components including Unistrut channels and fittings and dimensioned lumber. The standard components are easy to acquire and aim to create a playful and memorable design that is also affordable, replicable, and responsive to its community and context.

BPL Detail 2
BPL Detail 1

For the fabrication and assembly of the project, we partnered with YouthBuild Boston, an organization that assists underserved young people with the essential social, vocational, and academic skills to thrive in the design and construction industry. Throughout design, prototyping, and fabrication, we worked interactively with the young students and their staff to support their hands-on training and design education. Our partnership was intentional about offering new leadership and training opportunities, empowering the youth through a tangible contribution to the built environment, and constructing identity through the re-imagining of spaces and places within their own neighborhood.


With a tight schedule and limited budget, we developed a three-phase solution that continually examined the projects at two scales: individually and as a group. Each branch was considered independently in order to respond to its distinct needs, conditions, and identity, while simultaneously framing them in a series to ensure the design and engagement process was iterative and responsive to the lessons learned. Finally, we completed our work with a post-occupancy survey and operational memo to ensure the long-term maintenance and stewardship of the project. It included drawings, design inventory, and detailed instructions for replacing or repairing any component. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to serve nine distinct communities and to highlight our belief that beautiful and thoughtful design can and should be for everyone.


“We had the amazing opportunity to work with APB this past summer on a community project, and the experience was life-changing for our students and staff. Not only did they engage our group to discuss their thoughtful design process but we were able to witness first-hand their willingness to collaborate with community members and partners. As an organization, we commend APB's commitment to socially engaging work. Throughout the process, they were not only invested in seeing the design of the project through but were committed to working with our students and staff to fully execute the delivery of the project from start to finish.” 
Danyson Tavares, Executive Director of Youth Build Boston


A Library Free to All was recognized by the American Institute of Architect’s Chicago Foundation’s Roberta Feldman Architecture for Social Justice Honor Award. The award was “established in 2020 to honor excellence in single-built projects and single-design programs guided by the conviction that access to high-quality architecture is not a privilege; it is a human right.” 

“We had a lovely experience working with APB on a recently installed improvement to our library garden.  They came and met with several of our constituents -- public, patrons, and our Friends group -- and carefully collected info and feedback before creating their design.  The finished product was quite lovely, and has really enriched our public space.  And they even did follow up visits to make sure things were/are still working correctly!”
Guy Harris, Boston Public Library Egleston Branch Librarian

BPL Project Summary 2

Design and Build: Architecture for Public Benefit
Community Engagement: Design for Equity and Architecture for Public Benefit 
Fabrication and Assembly: YouthBuild Boston
CNC Milling: A05 Studio
Photography: Randy Crandon and Dionne Jones
Community Partners: Codman Square, East Boston, Roxbury, Mattapan, Egleston Square, Hyde Park, Grove Hall, Brighton, Lower Mills branch communities

Architecture For Public Benefit is a Chicago and Boston based practice on a mission to make exceptional design accessible to all.

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