CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Vermilion River flows through the city of Danville, Illinois, just south of its downtown area. But it is largely inaccessible to the city’s residents, cut off by busy streets, buildings and parking lots and with no easy way for people to get close to the river and enjoy nature.
Several dozen University of Illinois students of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban and regional planning are working with the city to look at how it could develop the riverfront as a public space connected to Danville’s downtown.
“We really have missed a grand opportunity by not featuring one of our natural assets,” said Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer. “I want a marquee feature in our community, focused on the river that runs right through the center of our city and was the reason for this city’s early development.”
Eisenhauer said the Riverfront Project partnership is a way for the city to take advantage of the expertise of the U. of I. He is particularly interested in the younger and more global perspective that the students – many of them international – can offer.
Yajing Zhao, a graduate student in landscape architecture, discusses her ideas for developing the riverfront in Danville, Illinois. The students involved in the project will present their final designs on Dec. 9 in Danville.
Photo by Natalie Fiol
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The interdisciplinary project provides an opportunity for students in the three disciplines to work together, just as they will when they begin their careers.
“The (planning) students get to hang out in the studios and look over the shoulders of architects and landscape architects and learn about the process,” said Rob Olshansky, head of the U. of I. Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
He said the experience will help the planning students ask better questions of architects, and it will give architecture and landscape architecture students a good idea of how planners analyze projects and think about their feasibility, phasing and marketing.
“Just by sharing knowledge during the design process, it allows other inputs, other ways of understanding the site and looking at things,” said Sara Bartumeus Ferré, a U. of I. architecture professor. The students “are excited about being part of a real project with real demands and a real need. It’s not just a theoretical exercise.
“So many American cities are putting efforts into revitalizing downtowns,” Bartumeus Ferré said. “Danville is an example of one of these American cities that have these shrinking downtowns. But not all have the potential of this riverside.”
The students spent a day talking with community members and coming up with ideas for revitalizing the riverfront at a charrette in September. Teams of students presented their work at a midterm review for their classes in October and since then have been refining their ideas. They’ll present the final outlines of their riverfront projects on Dec. 9 at Social, 38 N. Vermilion St., Danville.
The two dozen landscape architecture students are first-year graduate students, and the course is a chance to work on a real-world project. Amita Sinha, a U. of I. landscape architecture professor, said her students’ focus has been on developing a riverfront park in an ecologically sustainable way, emphasizing the natural processes and engaging residents with the natural environment. The city has 12 acres north of the river and 43 acres to the south.
The river provides “a little bit of urban wilderness right in the heart of the city,” Sinha said. “We’re really thinking about how the southern part can be a place where we can restore some woodland prairie.”
She also has asked her students to find ways to connect the riverfront area to other parks in Danville and to the Kickapoo Rail Trail system that will be built between Urbana and Danville.
For the architecture students, the work is part of a one-semester studio project focusing on urban design concepts. The goals include “giving the city more landscape identity, bringing activity to the riverfront and increasing pedestrian accessibility to the riverfront,” Bartumeus Ferré said.
“It has all this fantastic potential but it’s really challenging,” she said.
For example, the architecture students are looking at how to connect the downtown to the riverfront and how to incorporate existing elements such as an arena and a strip mall. They’ve considered adding an overlook or tower to give visitors a view of the river from above.
Two urban and regional planning students worked for the city as interns last summer. As a starting point for the project, they collected basic information such as census data, geographic information systems data, historical information and photos, and previous plans for city development.
The focus for the planning students’ work this year is implementation of the project. They will produce a planning document as their master’s capstone project, outlining strategies that will be useful for the city in developing the riverfront.
“One of the important things for planning students is identifying funding sources and laying out a range of financial models,” Olshansky said.
After the students present their concepts in December, Eisenhauer will share them with the community, seek money for infrastructure improvements and look for interest in the project from private developers. He expects the project will provide recreational and commercial opportunities along the riverfront, draw visitors to the city and instill a sense of pride in residents.
“I could not be happier with the collaboration – not just the results we’re getting – but also the process,” Eisenhauer said. “This is a project that can be a game-changer for the future of our community.”