Student group partners with upstate communities on planning and design projects

February 22, 2011

Design Connect, an interdisciplinary student organization, collaborated with 11 upstate communities on a variety of design and planning projects during the 2010–11 school year. Formed in 2009, the group now includes more than 70 undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of departments across the university, including design and environmental analysis, civil and environmental engineering, landscape architecture, city and regional planning, and architecture.

Each semester, Design Connect solicits project applications from regional communities requiring design and planning assistance. Design Connect's student leaders evaluate the projects based on social justice, environmental sustainability, economic responsibility, and the potential for community engagement. Student volunteers form teams for each accepted project, work with the community clients to refine project scope, and engage a faculty adviser who provides advice along the way.

"Design Connect thrives on a synergy of community and student needs," explains David West (M.R.P. '11), Design Connect's 2010 chairperson. "Local project ideas were sitting on the shelf because communities couldn't afford the conceptual design and planning needed to compete for project funding. Meanwhile, design and planning students were desperate for real-life project experience and interdisciplinary collaboration. Student leaders conceived Design Connect as a win-win situation for students and communities, and it has exceeded our most optimistic expectations."

Design Connect's projects last fall included working with the City of Binghamton's Department of Planning, Housing, and Community Development and Northside Community Board to revitalize the city's Northside neighborhood; assisting in creating a graphic identity for Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services' new Community Housing Trust; developing a plan for a redesign and restoration of the historic Village Park in the City of Lyons; and collaborating with the Interlaken Revitalization Committee to produce a conceptual streetscape design and historic preservation recommendations for Interlaken's Main Street. Interlaken is using the resulting document for an application for the upcoming 2011 Main Street grant. Volunteers also worked in Cooperstown on the formation of a community-led improvement process for Cooperstown Village Hall, and in Elmira on several projects including the creation of a Chemung River trail vision.

"We all understand that some of our conceptual designs will never be funded," says Alyson Fletcher (M.R.P. '12), 2011 chairperson. "But all our work champions public participation, helps communities in need articulate their visions, and develops community capacity."

Design Connect believes student autonomy is key to education. West explains, "With Design Connect, students don't just create the final product, they create the entire process. From the structure and leadership of the organization to mobilizing community participation to designing deliverables, students do it all. Students test and reformulate models of practice, take risks and learn the hard lessons that only come from bearing the whole weight of their decisions. The autonomy and responsibility Design Connect elicits is turning future planners and designers into future planning and design leaders."

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