September 13 2012

Between Daydream and Design: Ensuring That Community/School Partnerships Work

This garden resulted from a university/community partnership

An overgrown parking lot clings to the fringe of an urban center. Rundown school buildings wait for a sorely needed upgrade. Somewhere outside of these places, sleekly dressed design students stay up late with their rulers and tricked out software in hand. How about combining the two?

This type of collaborative thinking has become increasingly commonplace. Why not capitalize on the vision and creativity of design students – particularly aspiring engineers, landscape architects, and urban planners – in order to tackle urgent community issues? Just under a year ago, architecture students at Rhode Island School of Design completed a large-scale community garden project for an elderly care facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Only a few hours away in New York City, The Pratt Institute has its own community initiatives program.

However, it is important to ensure that these community projects hit their target. Design projects run the gamut, but successful ones require an honest and established relationship between students and community partners.

According to the Project for Public Space, there are 11 principles for creating great community spaces. Some of these principles are especially important for design school projects, including:

  1. The community is the expert;
  2. You’re creating a place, not a design;
  3. You are never finished.

All too often, student partnerships can fail to meet these criteria. The RISD garden project in Pawtucket is undoubtedly beautiful. However, for a passerby at the garden, very few elderly residents seem to actively participate — perhaps because not enough time was allocated to show the residents how to best use the project design.

Consistent communication and planning time between students and communities ensures that projects can go off without a hitch

On the other hand, successful partnerships prove that these principles can work. In the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Chase Community Giving offered two competitive grants for community development projects in New Orleans. The winning proposals for a new health clinic and innovative fabrication center belonged to teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s urban planning department, but were developed closely with New Orleans partners. In the end, Chase’s funds actually went to the on the ground partner organizations, as they offered the community context and social know-how to execute the design students’creative vision.

Collaboration is inherently seductive. Offering design students real-world experience to tackle community problems can be a great thing. But it’s important to fully consider the long-term effects of a design. Going forward, how should we ensure that art school projects better reflect the robust context of a community?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Lillian Mathews

Lillian Mathews graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Environmental Studies (Honors) and a focus on Food Systems and Urban Sustainability. She has designed and implemented an arts-based gardening site at a neighborhood center in Providence, Rhode Island, and has completed work in ecological planning and design, sustainable agriculture, and urban planning. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more at

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at 11:34 am and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Education and Careers, Engineering, Environmental Design, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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