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Urban Neighborhoods

Kids: a Fundamental Building Block in Community Resiliency #4

Four decades of organizing and administering Canadian and United States high school and university students’ collaborative work with local professionals, municipal staff, business owners, and neighborhood activists informs Living2Learn’s efforts to integrate community-driven, project-based learning into K-12 classes. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with community members, students give new meaning to education, for that matter to life-long learning. They help community members see opportunities they hadn’t previously thought of and discuss the potentials in those opportunities. So adept at generating data-driven design scenarios, organizing and leading focus groups, interpreting people’s wishes into visuals and three-dimensional models, and delivering public presentations my  students were sought after by rural towns (Dayton, Rosalia, and Toledo, Washington), neighborhood associations (Hillyard, Morgan Acres, and more in Spokane, WA), nonprofits (Boy Scouts of America, Washington Children’s Society), and government offices (Spokane Regional Health District and Washington State Department of Transportation).

Client groups’ appreciative comments on students’ community-building projects led us to believe that our form of service learning accelerated change. A year-long review of meetings’ transcripts and news articles failed to provide evidence of a direct connection between student involvement and accelerated change in the community. Anecdotal evidence, however, came from many sources. Past Spokane Mayor Mary Verner noted that without students’ involvement the Hillyard neighborhood would likely not be as far along as it is. “As far along” referred to the $17.5 million 2009 facelift to Hillyard’s historic downtown. Business consultant, J.R. Sloan commented, “The students' works upgraded the level of discussion in community group activities.  It's not a question of ‘if’ something will or can happen; it's a matter of ‘when and how’ this or that concept will come along.” At the conclusion of one 14-week collaborative effort, neighborhood residents’ comments echoed businessman Bob Lawrence’s observation that “Without the students’ help and presentations we would not be where we are right now.”

The students’ classroom learning, interpreted and applied through their interactions with and contributions to their community blurs the lines between classroom and community to the extent that the community becomes the classroom and vice versa. This overlap of community and classroom can be initiated by the community, students, or teachers.

Instructor Initiated Projects

Teachers, instructors, and professors often have more informed views and personal experiences with local, regional, and global issues than do their students. Their awareness of emerging global trends and the trends’ influences on local and regional wellbeing led to such instructor generated projects as:

Senior-friendly Spokane, 2000

Fifteen years ago few people in Spokane was admitting to the fact that 70+ million Baby Boomers were coming to retirement. Combined with Spokane’s recognition as one of the United States most affordable cities, it was easy to see how the city, if not the region, could become a retirement destination. Teams of architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and nursing students accepted the task of developing design scenarios that showed Spokane’s urban core as a senior-friendly destination and shared them with city staff and business leaders.

Powering the Palouse, 2009

Old rail lines, now only used for freight, exist throughout eastern Washington State. Passenger rail had long since ended, although older residents still remember the Football Train that ran partiers between Spokane and Washington State University, 75 miles south. In 2009, peak oil and energy scarcity were appearing on people’s radar, so I asked design, engineering, and business management students, “What would the return of passenger rail look like in central and eastern Washington?” The teams quickly realized that transit engineers only studied the movement of goods and resources. They did not consider such “externalities” as the potential residential and economic growth of the rural communities along the rail lines. Each of four student teams adopted a rural community along an existing rail line. Each team introduced itself to town leaders, scheduled and carried out a public focus group, and used feedback to develop rural town center designs that showed the development potential if passenger rail returned. The Washington State University design students consulted with Gonzaga University engineering students and Eastern Washington University marketing students. The students’ work captured the most media coverage we had ever experienced. See http://wsm.wsu.edu/s/index.php?id=756  

Urika Health Train

Located together on the same campus with Health Sciences, Nursing, and Pharmacy, we became aware of rural health issues. The project’s challenge was to retrofit a Pullman rail car so medical and dental staff (and student interns during the summer months) could be delivered on rail sidings to rural communities. Three teams of interior design students worked with nursing and dental hygiene students and faculty. The students toured an historic rail museum, looked at Pullman car construction, visited a Winnebago dealership to see how multi-use spaces were designed, studied historic documents of the interiors of Pullman cars, reviewed medical and dental procedures, and reviewed alternative energy sources and hazardous waste disposal regulations. The teams decided to add a flatbed rail car to the Pullman car to carry smart cars that staff would use to make house calls in the countryside surrounding wherever the Health Train stopped.

Student Generated Projects

Students’ sensitivity to their surroundings provides a basis for many community service projects, senior projects, and thesis topics. Projects grew out of hometown issues, current news stories, or family projects. The projects contributed to many of my university students, and the high school students who worked with them, to discover personal directions toward technical training, college or university areas of study, and employment. A sample of such projects include:

Play that Teaches Sustainability in Accra, Ghana: a two acre lot between buildings in downtown Accra provided the setting in which local leaders wished to develop a playground based on sustainable principles. The design student was charged with employing a sustainable approach to the playground’s layout and facilities. Play facilities were to use local resources and play activities were to impart in the kids an appreciation for sustainable living.

Increasing Crop Yield in Sierra Leon: this study looked at how permaculture practices could inform the design of a co-operative farm with the goal of boosting yields, identifying resources that could be reused and recycled, and providing training programs to local farmers.

Growth No Growth Tri Cities, WA: this student wished to move back to the Tri Cities area after graduation and work as a city planner. The existing approach to growth in his hometown was typical sprawl. His awareness of the growing loss in land and negative potentials regarding food, energy, and water made him want to test the extent to which “no growth”” principles could be applied and still allow for economic growth. Nearby Portland, OR was his guide.

Lincoln Heights Community Redesign: this existing small shopping mall is automobile dependent. Yet within a 15- minute walking radius there lived thousands of residents. With an understanding of rising oil costs, this student worked with the neighborhood association to test smart street and walkable design principles in the redesign of the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center.

Residential Design in Wildlife Habitat Areas: residential development had reached Montana. Animal habitats and migration routes were being broken. The environmental concern of this student had him working with an environmental nonprofit institute. The question driving his design study was, “Could residential development be directed through nature-sensitive design principles in ways that allowed developers to make a profit and not interfere with animal and plant systems?”

Reclamation of Old Quarry Site into City Park: a closed quarry operation was to become a public park. Safety issues and seasonal flooding provided both challenges and opportunities. The student worked with City and park officials, applied an ecological systems approach, and worked up a proposed design that, after her final public presentation, got her a job offer from the City.

Community Driven Projects

A lack of human resources, available time on task, and innovative points of view drive many community groups and organizations to request student teams to help solve problems, test ideas, develop new products, and explore what the future might look like. These projects are particularly interesting in that the community members are tremendous role models and their projects allow us to build truly diverse teams drawn from multiple universities, highs schools, and local professional and technical experts. Even more intriguing to primary and secondary educators is the extent to which most community-based projects can be shown to meet Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and 21st Century Skills. Examples include:

Sprague Lake – Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (built): two students initial disappointment with their client’s wishes became a project used by WA State Fish and Wildlife over a ten-year period. The original design request was considerably smaller than the students had been led to believe. What contributed to the project’s scope and success was the simple question, “What if the initial product is so successful it has to be followed by phases II and III?” The beauty of landscape architecture is that the products grow. They are ecologically grounded and they mature in various ways over time. This was the lesson learned here as the students worked with the dynamics of shoreline ecology, fish and wildlife habits, and the idiosyncrasies of public involvement in these systems.

Dayton, WA Downtown Restoration (built): a request for a simple design for a relocated historic schoolhouse turned into a series of public design meetings, measured drawings, and final master plan for a portion of Dayton’s historic downtown.

Northeast Community Center Reception Area (built): the Northeast Community Center (NECC) had been renovated. The staff had problems with the new receptionists’ work area: movement, interaction with clients, sense of safety all needed to be addressed. Three interior design students work with NECC staff produced a built product still shown off to visitors by the Director.

Morning Star Boys Ranch (built w/modifications): the master planning of this facility for troubled youth received a $50,000 Charlotte Martin Foundation grant that supported two landscape architecture seniors’ work with the youth and staff. The youth were involved in land use planning and design principles, site walks and identification of assets and liabilities, and development of a year-round program that comprised nature trails, playing fields, public circulation, future housing and activity areas, and horse training and grooming facilities for a new youth training program.

4 Neighborhood Projects: this project was an epiphany. Four different neighborhoods approached us at the same time. We promised to meet their needs, maintain a sense of place and neighborhood identity, and integrate design features that anticipated emerging global trends (water and energy scarcity, aging, obesity, and climate change).  The epiphany occurred at the conclusion of the initial meeting between 20 students and a total of 36 neighborhood residents. After each student team self-selected a neighborhood to work with everyone started to leave. They were told they couldn’t leave until they all shared contact information. From that moment on, the students spent more time with their clients then they would have normally spent in formal studio meetings. My role as teacher became that of a consultant. At times you couldn’t say who was the student and who was the teacher. Responsibilities kept shifting throughout the course of the project. The students became so close (responsible) to their clients that the project ended with the students wanting a guarantee that their work would not sit on a shelf.

Bob’s two favorite projects:

PUSH for PD – 24-bed facility for folks with 3rd, 4th, & 5th stage Parkinson’s disease is probably my all-time favorite project because of the people, their comradery, compassion, and collaboration. The request by the Seattle nonprofit, at the time called PUSH for PD, was to develop design studies for a care facility with specialized needs and maintain a sense of “home.” At one point the design team comprised architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and nursing students from one university, business and marketing majors from another university, practicing doctors, nurses and pharmacists, and a cadre of local people in various stages of Parkinson’s disease. We satisfied the client’s’ wishes to the point they decided not to purchase the land under consideration because its shape would not allow for the best final product to blend medical protocols and clients’ personal sense of home and family.

Hillyard Neighborhood ($17.5 million rehab of downtown): our most prolonged partnership. Eight years of design studios were devoted to working with the residents and business owners of Hillyard, WA. Slated to be divided by a north-south freeway, the neighborhood’s organizations and associations wondered “What opportunities could be taken advantage of and what would they look like? The students’ work was so good that we were asked to provide student teams as liaisons between the community and the Washington State Department of Transportation. Portions of student work are slated to be built, potions have been adopted by WSDOT with modifications, and all the designs are cataloged and to be referenced by the community as work progresses.

Today & the Future

Today, community-driven, project-based service learning has a lot to offer the current state of standards-driven K-12 and STEM education along with the economic and social vitality of many communities. Global trends are forcing changes, unexpected and often unplanned for changes, the consequences of which call for first-time-ever approaches to policies, processes, planning, and production. In turn, the yet to be determined first-time-ever approaches call for ways of questioning, exploring, interpreting, and implementing or what Bev Clevenger, Director of Education and Programs at Spokane, Washington’s Mobius Science Center outlines as: curiosity, confidence, competence, and courage. These are youthful traits lost in many adults.

The intellectual and human resources capable of taking on the challenge of giving form, character, and content to a future few have anticipated in found in every community’s youth. The benefits to rural, suburban, and urban communities engaging their K-12 youth’s creative and innovative energies include:

  • Youth get to sample potential personal, employable and educational futures;
  • Education becomes a community endeavor that builds social capital and greater resiliency;
  • Kids transition from consumers to active contributors to their community;
  • Enhanced student engagement in learning occurs through place-based authentic experiences;
  • Initiation of a combined intellectual-economic system with the proven potential of building new industries and workforces;
  • Development of a revenue stream in support of education;
  • Existing technologies link urban, suburban, and rural students with home schooled and private school students in collective or competitive problem solving collaborations;
  • Bringing into service an underutilized human resource, the kids;
  • Transformational learning that engages youth in the community in which they reside;
  • Youth and adults socialization in an environment in which life-long learning becomes an integral part of everyday practices; and
  • Accepting as common practice the integration of age groups in the production and testing of policies, processes, and products needed to meet the future.