Sixty Mississippi State students, faculty and staff are 2016 selections for exceptional research and leadership honors. Assistant Professor Emily McGlohn and I were pleased to be among the honorees for our work on energy efficiency in low-wealth housing in Greenwood, MS.
Even impending ice storms didn’t keep residents of Houston, Mississippi from participating in the Citizens Institute on Rural Design hosted in their community February 22, 23, and 24. One of only four such events to be held in the US in 2015, the Carl Small Town Center partnered with the Chickasaw Development Foundation to pair local passion with expert knowledge from around the country in the fields of bike and pedestrian transit, signage and wayfinding, and community development. Many thanks to Project for Public Spaces and the National Endowment for the Arts, the organizations who brought this much-needed program to life.
Over the course of three days, social, environmental and economic factors were all considered as the team discussed the terminus of the Tanglefoot Trail (just minutes from downtown Houston), and design implications for the city as a whole. The CSTC will continue to develop the design with the community throughout the spring and summer, so images are still to come, but here are a few of my favorite quotes from our expert panelists at the event.
“Building a park or a building and then thinking you can just walk away is like thinking you will never need another hair cut.” – Cynthia Nikitin, Director Citizens Institute on Rural Design
“Even the most expensive mile of bike and pedestrian infrastructure is about 1/50th of the cost of a mile of car infrastructure.” – Heather Deutsch, Sustainable Transportation Planner, Toole Design Group
“Our task is to hear what this place is all about. Let’s create a singage kit of parts based on the unique crafts and craft people here.” – Andrew Barresi, Principal, Roll Barresi & Associates
The most important quotes come from local residents though. Two images of our Houston Candy Chang-style “photo booth” are below. More of these to come as well.
Sunday through Tuesday (February 22-24), I will be working with the community engagement experts at the Carl Small Town Center, the Project for Public Spaces and the Citizens Institute on Rural Design in Houston, Mississippi. The three day event will engage community members around questions regarding the design and related impacts of a new rails to trails trail head near the city’s downtown. The Chickasaw Journal summarized the event and the new amenities in the area that it will focus on in this December 2014 article. We hope you can join us! As we get ready for this event, and wrap up the Design Cents forum earlier this week, I summarized some of my thoughts about community engagement here.
Community engagement is a term that sometimes mean a lot, sometimes means nothing at all, and always raises a lot of questions. At it’s worst, community engagement can be a lie, tokenism, or an insincere attempt to placate or meet a requirement. At it’s best, it unites people around a common cause and lays the ground work for positive, long-lasting understanding and impact. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about community engagement in the past.
Human to Human
No matter how effective your social media machine, lovely your fliers, or engaging your survey, none of it matters if you don’t have a real connection to the community you are trying to engage. You must spend time in person with the people, in the place, and sometimes living the experience that defines the community you are working with to develop how to best engage. For example, a largely illiterate population won’t be well engaged through surveys. By meeting the community, face to face, engagement goes beyond being an exercise and gains strength, an identity, and context.
There is no recipe for successful community engagement. It’s a messy art, and those who practice it learn that no single attempt or event can be expected to be a catch all in which information is gathered, people are galvanized around a cause, or a plan fully developed. Many community engagement activities I have seen, and planned, have been poorly attended. Really poorly attended. Many times this points to a lack of understanding on the planners part regarding who the community is, how to reach them, or what issues are important to them. The worst thing to do at this point is take the responses of one or two people as speaking for the whole, or pat yourself on the back for trying and simply give up. Take a step back and try to understand why the engagement exercise failed, and then try again.
Have A Plan
Like me, most people who engage communities weren’t trained to do so. We make a lot of mistakes, but a simple one is to be prepared. It is disrespectful of the people who participate if the organizer doesn’t have a clear goal, activity, or leader. While flexibility to allow people to respond honestly is important, they must have something to respond to. If a map would support your engagement activity think through what it should look like, how big it should be and how people will interact with it. Community engagement isn’t easy, so taking a professional approach is important to meeting the efforts goals.
(concrete, permits, homeowners)
Developing affordable housing is not easy. It’s a complex, political process that requires a team to realize at any scale. After years of effort from multiple project partners, the Baptist Town Cottage Project is making strides. With permits in hand, concrete is being poured for the first foundations today!
Perhaps more important than these visible steps, the project team hosted Fred Johnson of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation last week. Fred is a home ownership counseling expert who taught a class to future cottage owners on the “rights, privileges, and responsibilities” of home ownership. After many months of hard work, Fred’s enthusiasm and perspective reminded us all how excited we are about this opportunity for eleven families to move toward increased economic stability. Many thanks to Enterprise Gulf Coast for sending us just the expert we needed.
The Carl Small Town Center has been selected as one of four applicants awarded a technical assistance workshop by the Citizens Institute on Rural Design. Congratulations to John Poros and Leah Kemp for all their hard work! Less than a year after the opening of the 46 mile long Tanglefoot Trail, we are excited for CIRD to come to Houston, MS, and maybe visit nearby New Houlka as well, where we are wrapping up our Spring CREATE class project.
The full announcement, including descriptions of all four of the selected applicants, is available on CIRD’s website.
Working in rural areas, particularly communities in which little new development has occurred for many years, often presents challenges that surprise me despite extensive experience in these settings. I am presented with points of view, biases, and opinions that I could not anticipate. In the community of Houlka, we have received lots of support and positive feedback, but we have also gotten a lot of questions over the last few weeks. Primarily, “Why aren’t the lines straight?”
Conceived of as a means to clarify uses (parking, driving, biking, and walking) within the square, as well as an eye-catching way to draw visitors from the Tanglefoot Trail into downtown, the student design features undulating yellow and white lines for a wide bike lane and walking area. Though this functional public art is as unexpected to Houlka residents as the desire for only straight lines is to me, there is one thing we can easily agree on: a design that will decrease the risk of collisions between vehicles and bicyclists or pedestrians.
A little research reveals that from rural to urban and across the country, many issues are constants. In San Francisco, Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects is working toward similar goals, and even has proposed a solution that shares some of the traits of our downtown Houlka project. An image of their proposal is below, alongside recent photos of the CREATE class in New Houlka.
New Houlka photo credits: Leah Kemp
Work began on the CREATE: New Houlka project on Tuesday. The design, which delineates a walking path, bike path, and parking areas around the historic downtown square, is the result of a design-impact seminar I am co-teaching with Leah Faulk Kemp through MSU’s Carl Small Town Center. Students learned about and implemented community engagement activities throughout the first few weeks of the semester and then worked together to design a response to the needs and aspirations expressed by residents.
Based on community feedback, the primary goal of the project became to attract both local and non-local people (walkers, bikers, drivers, and festival go-ers) to the square. In particular, residents and community leaders hope to attract bicyclists from the new Tanglefoot Trail (a 43.6 mile Rails to Trails conversion that opened in October 2013) to visit New Houlka, even if just for a spin around the newly painted square.
Here’s a link to the video of some news coverage we got yesterday!
Next week I will begin co-teaching my first architecture course at Mississippi State’s CAAD (College of Art, Architecture and Design). In this community engagement seminar sponsored by the CREATE Foundation, Leah Faulk Kemp and I will guide students through the process of engaging residents of the small town of New Houlka. As in previous years, the class will wrap up with a document in which students propose design solutions based on the goals and needs articulated by the community. In addition, this year’s class will implement one small scale project, giving students experience in the surprises that come with project implementation.
Also at CAAD, the Collaborative Studio ended the fall semester with a ribbon cutting. Students completed construction of two bus shelters for the Mississippi Band of Choctow Indians. Their work is a continuation of CAAD’s relationship with this community built upon a previous design-build bus shelter and various design and consultation services provided by CSTC since 2009. Read more about the class and the bus shelters here.
The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s call for this years papers invited submissions on a variety of topics, all related to the global nature of architectural practice today. The number of topics related to socially impactful work is encouraging. Even more exciting is the acceptance of a paper that Leah Faulk Kemp, Assistant Director of the Carl Small Town Center (CSTC), and I co-wrote. Our paper, titled Building Social Building, presents four lessons learned through the work of CSTC as instructive in implementing community driven design projects. We can’t share the paper until after our presentation, but here are some soundbites:
Public Interest design has trust issues.
Public interest architecture is public; this means it’s political.
Social impact design is about more than three bottom lines.
Social impact work must be impactful.
We will share more about the paper and our presentation in April!
Three little girls sat on a bench yesterday evening pointing at each new piece of playground equipment. “I’m going to play on that one, and I’m going to play on that one, and I’m going to play on that one.” As concrete footings were drying volunteers had to remind neighborhood kids that the playground wouldn’t be open until this morning.
Through the many surveys conducted in Baptist Town over the past ten years, residents have consistently emphasized the need for activities for children, specifically a playground. Despite this, when I began my job in January, no funding for a playground was in place. That changed when I met Cyndi Long from a local office of GE Capital Aviation Services. We began to work together, and she supported our grant application to the GE Volunteer Foundation. Cyndi and her co-workers were flexible and creative, and joined us in leading a kid’s only community meeting in April to brainstorm with neighborhood kids what they most wanted in the playground. As a result, we won a grant from the GE Volunteer Foundation for $4,000, and the local GECAS branch sponsored approximately $3,500 in play equipment and supplies. A crew of GE volunteers to construct the park was also a part of the grant award.
Yesterday, twenty-eight volunteers from GECAS, including Greenwood residents and many who drove down from Memphis, brought to life what had previously only existed on paper. Starting with swings and bouncers on a grassy site in the morning, the group wrapped up the day with a completed playground by evening. When I visited the site this morning, the three little girls were true to their word – playing on every piece of equipment we had installed. In the short time I visited today, a dozen kids jumped, slid, climbed and see sawed. I know this demographic is enjoying the result of this project, but the realization of something so long asked for seems important to the community as a whole. “Hopeful” is a word I have heard a lot in regard to the playground project. I am honored to be a part of something hopeful, and am looking forward to GOODat day on Saturday where we continue to celebrate the people of Baptist Town of all ages.
I am grateful to so many people for realizing this playground. As I continue to work in the field of social impact design, each project demonstrates that nothing is completed by an individual, but is the product of many collaborators. Obviously, GE and Cyndi played huge roles, but whether you drove a truck, lent a wheelbarrow, lent a hand, wrote about the day, or enjoy hanging up-side-down from the monkeybars: thank you, this would not have happened without you.