THE UNI — our current project

The UNI is a portable, all-in-one reading room and programming venue designed to take up temporary residency right at street level, in the heart of our cities, towns and communities. It comes in the form of an eight foot cube and is literally an "institution-in-a-box" that opens up to offer books to read, as well as public lectures, workshops, screenings, and educational activities. During operating hours, the UNI’s physical components can be easily arranged to provide seating, work surfaces, display panels, a stage, and a podium. At night, the UNI can be closed up and secured, with surfaces announcing the next days’ events and other nearby learning opportunities.

The UNI comes pre-programmed with a unique collection of books for children and adults, as well as its own documentary film series for evenings. Other programs, such as lectures and readings, are customized by location and feature partnerships with local organizations, with a focus on small, independent nonprofits who lack program space of their own. The UNI can be a "test kitchen" for these partners to showcase educational programs and reach new audiences.


Boston Street Lab is developing the UNI to create an efficient and attractive way to put educational programs and activities in prominent, public, street-level locations. We want to see books and other learning opportunities in outdoor places where we haven't seen them before, like plazas, walkways, parks, empty lots, or even shopping centers.

The UNI is a tool for showcasing the act of learning and improving cities. Coming Summer 2011.

Conceptual Study 1

[slidepress gallery="uni-conceptual-studies"]

These images were created by HY Architecture, Boston MA for Boston Street Lab, Inc. and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Conceptual Study 2

[slidepress gallery="uni-schematic-designs"]

These images were created by HY Architecture, Boston MA for Boston Street Lab, Inc. and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


The UNI offers program partners a unique environment for showcasing existing educational programs and engaging a broad public audience. We're looking for public-minded program partners who can rise to the challenges of the UNI's environment and help us put it to good use.

Program partners can be institutions, organizations, and individuals. All will be recognized in UNI and Boston Street Lab materials, as well as on-site on the day of their program. As a result of participating in the UNI, program partners will:

  • expand their reach beyond their walls and websites and bring existing programs to street-level locations with the potential for large audiences and new populations.
  • have a greater impact by being "bundled" and associated with the other partners under the umbrella of the UNI.
  • benefit from the anonymous quantitative and qualitative data collected by UNI staff, from which conclusions can be drawn, and best practices identified.
  • learn new strategies that make them more vital, nimble, more responsive.


The UNI offers property owners and managers a compact, attractive, all-in-one solution for temporarily transforming almost any available space into a place of activity and engagement. The UNI also offers an effective way to test more permanent plans for community, civic, or cultural land use. Attractive and active by day as well as night, the UNI can function as a "placemaking tool," helping to generate or increase foot traffic and lengthen the time people spend at street-level. The UNI comes fully staffed, insured, and permitted, and is managed at all times by Boston Street Lab.

We're looking for public-minded space partners who want to host the UNI for periods of about three weeks. As a result of hosting the UNI, space partners will:

  • provide a temporary amenity and demonstrate good will for the community
  • activate underutilized space on their property
  • benefit area businesses through the increased foot traffic and longer stays
  • generate interest in available property for sale or rent through media attention the UNI garners.

Space Partners can be private or public property owners or managers. All will be prominently recognized in all UNI and Boston Street Lab materials, as well as on-site.


Thanks to a partnership with HY Architecture and a grant from MIT, the design and construction of the UNI is underway. We expect to start operations on the ground later this summer in New York City and Boston.

One of the UNI's innovations is the ability to go almost anywhere, serve vastly different populations, and support a variety of social/urban/neighborhood agendas with books and street-level programming. In the first season, we'll focus on two very different location types: 1) a crowded, prominent "downtown" public space and 2) a neighborhood location directly adjacent to a public school. We'll seek to carry-over connections and contributions from one location to the other.

Thereafter, we'll seek to deploy the UNI as often as possible and as far afield as we can. The more locations we tackle, the more we'll learn about the potential of the physical design and institutional model. And the more communities we encounter, the more remarkable the story will become.


Boston Street Lab is developing the UNI, drawing upon its experience creating the Storefront Library (2009-10) and other projects it has produced in urban space. Boston Street Lab will manage, insure, and operate each deployment of the UNI. The UNI cube is being designed by Höweler + Yoon, an architecture firm with broad experience with public installations.

Volunteer Librarians UNI 2011:

  • Lindsey Danis (Simmons GSLIS ’12)
  • Chelsea Gunn (Simmons GSLIS ’12)
  • Madeline Kelly (Simmons GSLIS ’12)
  • Molly McInerny (Simmons GSLIS ’12)
  • Helen Schubert (Simmons GSLIS ’13)



  • The public has a new, reliable, one-stop source for reading and multigenerational educational programs at street level.
  • Neighborhoods experience increased foot traffic and other positive effects benefitting businesses and residents when the UNI is deployed.
  • UNI participants express positive feedback about their experience with UNI programs.
  • The UNI’s institutional partners reach new audiences at street level and benefit from collaboration with each other and UNI staff.
  • We identify, refine, and share new business models for nonprofit land use at street level.


  • number and types of programs we produce
  • number of visitors to the UNI
  • amount of online activity related to UNI
  • feedback of UNI participants in the form of handwritten, electronic, and oral surveys
  • feedback of area businesses and residents about the perceived impact of the UNI during operation, including follow-up six months after deployment.
  • references made to the UNI’s deployment in planning processes for neighborhood development.

(See similar data we collected for the Storefront Library.)


  • Cities, towns, and communities are better places to live and work, because street life improves, and people share a more robust public life.
  • The reputation of public experiences that are free and inclusive is raised in the public's eye.
  • People expect more from the built environment and have a renewed sense that it can reflect non-commercial aspirations for themselves and for society.
  • There is more demand for and public investment in non-commercial use of space at street level.
  • Others are inspired to do similar work, and more groups participate in programming public space.

Our Recent Blog Posts related to the UNI:

Onward to the Uni Project

We’re hard at work on the Uni now, and you can read all about it on the Uni web site, which picks up where this blog leaves off. Below, the Street Lab blog looks back at our previous projects, like a community film series in a vacant lot, performing arts rehearsals in public space, and […]

Kickstart the Uni

Our 30-day fundraising drive for the Uni launched this morning on Kickstarter. We’re asking people to help us create a portable, open-air reading room for New York City launching this fall. Join us by: pledging on Kickstarter (pay only if we reach our goal on August 15) following us on Twitter: @findtheuni liking us on […]

Stepping into the Uni

We’re just a few days away from launching a fundraising drive to build the Uni, a portable reading room for public space. We’d like to offer a preview of the Uni to those of you following the blog here at Boston Street Lab. Below are new links—feedback always appreciated. In a few days from now, we’ll […]

StreetFest at the Festival of Ideas for the New City

This weekend I walked up and down the Bowery and around Sara D. Roosevelt Park in NYC to see what ideas were on offer at the street festival called “StreetFest,” organized by the New Museum in conjunction with its Festival of Ideas for the New City. I knew I wanted to see this street festival […]

UNI Librarian participates in Beyond Books Conference on Libraries and Journalism

Chelsea Gunn is one of five volunteer UNI librarians working with Boston Street Lab on the UNI, which is our project to create a portable, outdoor reading room for cities. As part of that work, Chelsea attended the Beyond Book Conference on the future of Libraries and Journalism at MIT. In the weeks ahead, we’ll […]

Planning the Uni, thinking about bookmobiles.

This post is a quick compilation of research by UNI Librarians Lindsey Danis and Chelsea Gunn on the status and history of Bookmobiles in Boston. Our goal was to draw on the bookmobile experience as we develop the UNI. BOSTON BOOKMOBILE TIMELINE Historical (Boston Bookmobile on Flickr) 2003 Floating Bookmobile in Hudson MA (Wicked Local 2003-07-23 […]

Volunteer Librarians now at work on the UNI

Boston Street Lab is pleased to introduce a group of graduate students from Simmons’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science who have volunteered to help us create a collection of books for our next project called the the UNI, a portable, open-air reading room set to launch in Boston this summer: Lindsey Danis (Simmons GSLIS […]

Mobile classroom for train stations in India

Here’s a mobile classroom that is used to teach children in India. The founder of the project invented a way to go directly to orphaned and homeless children—children who end up in India’s train stations and are often swept up by adults for exploitation. Learn more on the project web site or watch a PBS documentary. I admire the […]

Locating Libraries in Metro Stations, Stockholm.

Inauguration day of “T-Sture”, the new Metro Library at Stureplan, Stockholm from Åke Nygren. Here’s a glimpse of what appears to be the opening of a new library in a Metro Station in Stockholm. (Note the fresh flowers, cafe area, and acrobats.) We’ve been exploring the concept of “library outposts,” a term which we trace […]