A Designer Highlights a New York City Project: Lonni Tanner


By Laetitia Wolff

Lonni Tanner has long been a shaker-upper of places, programs, people, and institutions––designing inventive solutions to better the lives of the most vulnerable citizens. During her current stint as chief of civic innovation at NYC’s Department of Probation and formerly, as chief change officer at NYC’s Department of Design and Construction, leading a joint Mayoral initiative–SeeChangeNYC–Tanner has been reinventing the places that at-risk New Yorkers rely on for support. Think probation centers, foster care centers, libraries, public schools. Every solution is custom-made, and for every challenge, she gathers a team of thinkers and doers from across disciplines.

Prior to that, and for 11 years, Tanner served as director of special projects for the Robin Hood Foundation, amassing donations of more than $50 million for poverty-fighting projects–including libraries, soup kitchens, and childcare centers–while collaborating with the nation’s leading architects. Tanner earned a Loeb Fellowship, a National AIA Institute Honor for Collaborative Achievement and was awarded a Lyndhurst Prize for her work launching City Year, a national service think and do tank.


We spoke with Tanner about the Children’s Center, a collaboration between NYC Probation + NYC Administration for Children’s Services.   


The project:

To overhaul the city’s main nursery in the Children’s Center, a facility where children who have been removed from their families for suspected child abuse or neglect wait for foster care placement―a process that can take days or weeks. The facility houses children and teens, both boys and girls.

Location of project:

Manhattan, New York City, NY.

Key audience:

Children, ages 0 to 6, and the staff that care for them.

Design field/disciplines represented:

Graphic design, illustration, architecture, interior and industrial design, construction, project management, early childhood education, mental health, pediatrics, poverty, mediation, public safety, restorative justice.

Designers involved:

Graphic design/architecture firm 2 x 4 and illustrator Christoph Niemann.

One surprising fact about the project:

The difficulty of bringing this 3,150-square foot nursery overhaul to fruition. Although a relatively small space, it was wicked hard.

One (or many) challenges to overcome:

Red tape, red tape, red tape; paperwork; fits and starts; rush, rush, rush after getting the greenlight (use the money or lose it on June 30); a shoestring budget (made whole with $100K in cash and in-kind donations); gaining staff trust; day-to-day duties taking precedence; being an insider in the city, while an outsider at ACS.

After a hundred hours in the nursery—watching, talking and observing children and staff—the challenges became obvious, real and daunting: from learning deficits, behavioral issues, disengagement, restlessness, fear and sadness in the children to a staff doing its best, with minimal resources and training, working in a dour environment, tending to a multitude of children with diverse needs and challenges, all in various states of trauma.

What makes this project special:

The wraparound mural is the rock star of the nursery and one element of an inexpensive kit-of-parts designed to stimulate play, talk, and build basic hard and soft skills. It can be replicated and installed in just about any setting to activate young minds. The kit includes the mural, a Mural Activation Guide (for staff), pictures and frames for the art gallery, furnishings, a color palette, a take-home coloring book to reinforce what children learned, to encourage drawing, and to leave with a fond memory. Even if a child was in the nursery for only a day, he/she could leave having gained something new, whether it be better knowledge of numbers, letters, words, or basic images. I watched it happen. Magical.


Albert Vecerka/ESTO


Albert Vecerka/ESTO


Albert Vecerka/ESTO


Albert Vecerka/ESTO


Albert Vecerka/ESTO