CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Although they typically function independently from each other, architects, landscape architects and urban planners sometimes cross paths while engaged in community development or urban renewal projects.
But rarely do they begin working together as a team from the outset, according to Lynne Dearborn, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "So many of the firms I've worked for don't work that way," she said. "Instead, we find things out late in the project ... things that go wrong, that end up costing more money to resolve." With more communication among all the players early in the process, such cost
overruns might be avoided, she said.
Helping students of architecture, landscape architecture and urban and regional planning appreciate how professionals from all three distinct, but interrelated disciplines, can benefit from a more cooperative approach was just one of many lessons to emerge from a course Dearborn co-developed and co-taught with urban and regional planning professor Stacy Harwood and landscape architecture professor Laura Lawson. Clients, too, may be better served by such arrangements, the students learned.
The studio-based course, "Envisioning the Future in the South End Neighborhood," recently received one of two 2004 Education Honor Awards from the American Institute of Architects. The award was presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture's in Miami in March. The AIA award recognized the course as "an exceptional model of instructional and educational excellence in classroom, studio, community-based service learning, or laboratory work."
The course was offered during the spring 2002 and 2003 semesters, under the auspices of the university's East St. Louis Action Research Project. Founded in 1990 and administered by the U. of I. College of Fine and Applied Arts, ESLARP promotes the revitalization of distressed areas of East St. Louis by creating partnerships between university students and faculty members, and members of neighborhood organizations. The university and community groups work cooperatively to identify problems and apply design and planning solutions that best address the needs of targeted neighborhoods.
"This city has dramatic needs for technical assistance and no existing city-level agency to provide needed design, planning or community development support for non-profits," Dearborn, Harwood and Lawson noted, adding that most municipalities have their own planning staffs. Over the years, they said, one thing that has become apparent to ESLARP faculty members is that the "complex, nested relationships within East St. Louis' neighborhoods require very close interdisciplinary collaboration."
Lawson explained how those layered, complex problems require coordinated solutions involving more than one discipline:
"The South End neighborhood is the traditionally African American neighborhood of East St. Louis from the period of residential segregation. It was developed with narrow lots for shotgun-style houses. Now, two-thirds of the lots are vacant. The community wants new development to happen, but the lots are not amenable to current lifestyles. Proposals for wider lots and new homes have implications for street and sidewalk design. In addition, there is a problem of illegal dumping on vacant land. To solve those kinds of problems calls for multifaceted solutions involving planning and design, as well as legal and policy solutions that no one discipline can handle."
The teaching team developed two primary goals for the course: "to provide technical assistance to the South End New Development Organizations (SENDO), with the ultimate goal to produce a neighborhood plan proposal; and to teach university students about community-based design and planning."
Those goals were achieved, in part, during class trips to East St. Louis, where students surveyed residents, analyzed Census and other data, participated in work weekends, met with SENDO members and sought their input.
"The folks involved in SENDO made this project possible," Harwood said. "They welcomed us into their homes and churches."
In the end, students from the 2003 class delivered a planning document to SENDO that serves as a working framework for change. That document remains a "work in progress," according to Harwood, who said ESLARP staff and research assistants have facilitated the transition from planning to implementation by using the planning document to identify new projects, some of which are under way in the neighborhood.