Research to Imagine a Better Future for Communities
In spring 2022, a Graduate Urban Design Studio taught by Frank Sleegers, associate professor of landscape architecture at UMass Amherst, set up camp in a vacant barber shop on Main Street in the Indian Orchard neighborhood of Springfield, Mass.
The class was charged with taking a focused look at the neighborhood and providing strategies for urban design and landscape architecture to support residents’ visions for its future—one that would make Main Street more beautiful, safer, and more accessible for pedestrians, while creating new opportunities and incentives for local businesses. Residents were invited to stop by the barber shop base camp and share their perspectives on what was needed in the neighborhood. The class also solicited feedback at a community visioning event; walked the neighborhood with the mayor and his cabinet; and toured the historic Indian Orchard Mill. The students studied the neighborhood’s history, culture, demographics, and natural systems, and learned about transportation and zoning in the area.
In addition to conducting this community-engaged scholarship, over the course of the semester the class helped with a riverfront cleanup; created an art “parklet” (a temporary art installation in an unused parking area); and restored a mosaic bench in collaboration with a local artist. They summarized the work in a technical report for the city, sharing what they learned and laying out community-informed visions for the future of the neighborhood. (The top image on this story is a design proposal, included in the technical report, for the site of a former gas station and current vacant lot created by students Abby Derick, Jack Harlow, and Suzanne Warner in Frank Sleegers' Graduate Urban Design Studio.)
Sleegers and colleagues in UMass Amherst’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP) have led such projects in Springfield for over 15 years in close partnership with the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.
“We fill a role in the middle, between city government and local residents,” explained Michael Di Pasquale, extension associate professor of regional planning, who also leads UMass’s involvement in Springfield. “We’re there to hear the residents and work with them to address the kind of challenges facing many of the state’s ‘Gateway Cities,’ including a lackluster economy, vacant lots, and the harmful impact of outdated urban renewal plans.” Often, the UMass faculty and students carry out important, yet time-consuming, community engagement and planning work for which the city government lacks bandwidth.
The Intersection of Research, Education, and Community Outreach
LARP’s community-engaged scholarship in Springfield is part of a much broader portfolio of work around Massachusetts and the surrounding region. According to department chair Robert Ryan, professor in landscape architecture and regional planning, every semester LARP faculty and students work on about half a dozen projects, ranging from economic development and transportation planning to designs for greenways, parks, and waterfronts.
Positioned at the nexus of research, education, and community outreach, these projects are grounded in research-based best practices while "pushing the envelope” and building the professional knowledge base, Ryan explained.
Much of LARP’s community outreach work is done under the auspices of the Center for Resilient Metro-Regions (CRM), whose mission is aimed at helping communities develop more sustainable planning and design solutions to adapt to changing climate, environmental, socio-demographic, and economic conditions. Additional community outreach work is done through the Center for Economic Development (CED), which focuses on providing technical assistance to communities, undertaking community-based studies, and enhancing local and multi-community capacity for strategic planning and development.
“With our projects, we address a range of challenges faced by local communities. Some towns and cities are experiencing disinvestment; they’ve lost their industrial economies and have things like abandoned mills or vacant lots. We work with them on how to change the economic circumstances and reimagine these places with the people who live there,” said Ryan. “We also look at the impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding, on cities and towns. We work in many diverse communities with shifting demographics.
“The department is trying to address some of the sticky issues in our society and create beautiful, healthy places for people to live.”
In our department, we emphasize that our projects are not abstract creations—they’re to improve the lives of real people in real places.
Projects often originate from connections with department alumni, or when municipalities and local organizations seek assistance from LARP.
“Communities want to engage with the university because they’re tapping into the research and creative potential that exists here,” said Ryan. “When students work on a project, they bring an incredible energy and out-of-the-box thinking. A class of students can generate a range of different ideas, compared to a traditional consultant.”
Studio classes typically engage with a community for a full semester, while individual faculty and student projects may last a year or longer. Each project culminates in a high-quality report outlining a vision, which the local government can use to receive additional funding and can further develop into plans or construction drawings. A Spring 2020 project completed by UMass students working remotely (including one student working from China) won first prize in a statewide design competition to envision a new transit-oriented neighborhood adjacent to Springfield’s Union Station transit hub. The winning proposal, done in collaboration with the City of Springfield, emphasized affordable housing and new public spaces to promote a more diverse equitable downtown neighborhood.
Students and faculty often produce other tangible outputs in the community, as well. Some are temporary, like the Indian Orchard art parklet, while others become permanent fixtures in communities. For example, in 2016, Di Pasquale’s research related to vacant spaces and the loss of “social infrastructure” prompted the creation of a pop-up makerspace in the downtown Springfield business district. Designed to only be open for a few weeks, “Make-It Springfield” has never closed; six years later, it’s still going strong as a community-run organization and is poised to move into a much larger space in late 2022.
Learning from 'Real People in Real Places'
According to Ryan, many LARP graduates go on to careers at landscape architecture consulting firms doing innovative work, while others work for government agencies and nonprofits focused on issues like urban greening and affordable housing.
“For student learning, these hands-on projects with communities are incredible. They make all the pieces of their education come together. Students learn professional skills; they learn how to communicate their ideas—visually, orally, and in written form—to the public,” he said. “They also get a reality check in translating ideas to the real world. The students come with a lot of creativity—they are becoming experts—but they realize there’s a lot to learn from the people who live in these communities. In our department, we emphasize that our projects are not abstract creations—they’re to improve the lives of real people in real places.”
The Graduate Urban Design Studio held a community visioning event to hear ideas from Indian Orchard residents on what they would like to see in their neighborhood, along with stories about their favorite places. The event guided the class in defining designs and planning goals to meet the needs of the community. (Photo by Frank Sleegers.)
Suzanne Warner, a master’s student in landscape architecture, was part of Sleegers’ Graduate Urban Design Studio working in Springfield in spring 2022. The project provided her with valuable experience in community engagement work in preparation for her intended future career, designing urban public spaces like parks and trails.
“The most important thing I gained from our studio community engagement work is an appreciation for how complex and time consuming it is,” she said. “Working with a real community, you are quickly reminded of how much you don’t know, and how valuable local knowledge is. We also learned that community members rarely agree on everything, and there is no formula to figure out how to balance or prioritize competing community desires.”
Warner found it rewarding to “make a tangible difference in the community” through the class’s work, and added that she’s glad to see the work continue on through the department’s ongoing collaboration with the city.
This story was originally published in November 2022.