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Feature Stories

Designs on Springfield
UMass Center brings art and planning to the Hoop City
UMass student shows model for new Springfield city plans

With a headquarters in the historic Lincoln Building in Court Square, UMass Amherst Design Center students are working with city planners to regenerate Springfield outward from its inmost urban heart.

The interior of the UMass Amherst Design Center in downtown Springfield looks like a typical urban design studio: brick walls, open spaces, big tables strewn with plans, and more plans pinned to the walls. But the experiment taking place here is something new and different: a living practicum that allows design students to apply their expertise to real-life urban renewal challenges.

Students in Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Architecture and Design, and Studio Arts work with faculty who are commissioned by the city of Springfield to do studios: collaborative approaches to solving a design problem, analogous to capstones in engineering. Two studios take place each semester, with 20 to 30 students working in a close group with tight mentorship from a faculty member to solve a challenge identified as a priority by the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.

It’s a win/win for both campus and city. Faculty and students can expand their skills far beyond the theoretical work of a design classroom to real-world cityscapes. And Springfield is able to draw upon students’ work to enhance its plans for development. “It provides students with an urban learning experience that is relevant and helps Springfield fill a need,” says UMass Extension educator and center director Michael DiPasquale ’06.

Students work to help the city solve problems such as how to reconnect urban life with the Connecticut River, the original source of Springfield’s prosperity, how to manage storm water drainage, and how to restore historic neighborhoods which were deforested by the tornado of June 2011.

A typical studio goes something like this: students acquaint themselves with the site and spend two weeks doing analysis, which includes studying a neighborhood’s past—its historical footprint—and its present, gathering data through censuses, surveys and public participation meetings with community citizens. Then they begin work in earnest for five weeks, presenting their work to city planners and neighborhood stakeholders, who critique it to fill in any gaps of understanding. This critique is incorporated into the final phase of the design. The portfolio is then presented to the mayor, and the plans used to supplement those of Springfield’s city designers.

The studios become a holistic intensive on how many moving parts must be synchronized to help a project come to fruition in a living city. “After seven weeks, students become experts on site-specific details,” says Scott Hanson ’99, principal planner for Springfield’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. “They are able to see a whole context for a project, working with multiple stakeholders in a community and reconciling conflicting needs and wants. Also, you have students in different disciplines working side by side on the same project.”

The rain gardens designed by students Nate Frazee, Ryan Ball, and Garrett Stone, for example, combine landscape design and urban forestry to counteract the problem of storm water running over paved spaces, collecting and sluicing petro-toxins directly into the Connecticut River. The team designed a way to convert the existing median of Chapin Terrace into an absorptive garden that would allow rain water to seep directly into the ground and be filtered by plants, and even created a manifest for similar projects in other neighborhoods. Once the trees in the design mature, the terrace will also be a carbon-offsetting green space. “There are immense ecosystem benefits” to the project, says Frazee, who points out that it could also eventually provide habitat to threatened species. The plans have been submitted to the city for review and possible implementation.

Other recent studios include a redevelopment of Pynchon Park, a neighborhood “pocket park” near Dwight Street, and the creative envisioning of an all-new community center in north Springfield. In fall 2012 students focused on creating a green infrastructure plan for the city’s historic Forest Park neighborhood.

The center itself reclaims urban space. The building, constructed in 1835 by architect Simon Sanborn, had been in a state of dereliction and abandonment prior to being identified as studio headquarters. Initiated under the leadership of John Mullin, director of the Springfield-UMass Amherst Partnership from 2008 to 2011, it now allows UMass Amherst to have an outpost that is easily accessible to and identified with the city’s core.

The city is a palette with almost limitless opportunities to inspire creativity and innovation in both students and faculty. And along the way, students receive a deep education about the city their ideas may eventually become part of. “Before the project begins, about 90 percent of students don’t know anything about Springfield. We are introducing them to Springfield in a positive way,” says Hanson.

The city returns its appreciation. “The UMass Design Center students have been very helpful and creative in adding to our Planning and Parks Department’s project efforts,” says Springfield mayor Domenic J. Sarno, who sees the presence of the center as an important sign that the relationship between the campus and the city to the south is growing stronger. Through this engagement, the center epitomizes the university’s land-grant mission as the flagship of the state’s higher education system: to marshal research and teaching to the service of the community, and blaze a trail to the future for the people of the Commonwealth.

University Relations