The urban reinvestment and renewal efforts of the last half-century left a legacy of neglect and underinvestment in many American cities. Large-scale public housing projects and forced relocation programs created pockets of poverty in inner cities, concentrating the problems of low-income urbanites and not really doing much to effectively solve them. The concept of urban reinvestment has, understandably, developed a negative connotation over the years.

Now that pattern is shifting, and university architecture programs are leading the change. Through innovative community-focused studio projects, architecture programs are playing a new role in planning, designing, and building in some of the most resource-limited parts of American cities.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has undergone the sort of demographic and financial transitions experienced by a lot of former industrial areas in the Midwest and Northeast. From the height of industrial prowess and wealth in the early 20th century to the abandonment and gradual drain caused by the midcentury suburban boom to decades of poverty and underinvestment, Over-the-Rhine has devolved into an area of empty buildings, homeless residents, and widespread poverty. The neighborhood has the bones of a historic neighborhood but the innards of a very sick patient. Its population predominantly lives below the poverty line, and years of neglect have reinforced the cycle that’s kept them there.

In an effort to disrupt that cycle, the Department of Architecture + Interior Design at Miami University decided to get involved. Based in the town of Oxford, Ohio, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati, the department began focusing some of its students’ work on Over-the-Rhine in the late ’90s, collaborating with community development corporations, low-income housing developers, and homeless shelters to design and build small-scale projects to serve a community that had for so long been underserved. Projects of the Over-the-Rhine DesignBuild Studio have included affordable housing renovations and storefront conversions, but also smaller-scale projects, such as constructing terraces and balconies on existing buildings. Since 2006, the studio has run a semester-long residency program with an interdisciplinary approach that helps the faculty’s and students’ knowledge base intersect with the knowledge and experiences of the Over-the-Rhine community members.

John Blake, DesignBuild Studio’s coordinator of community projects, says that exposure helps the studio understand the community’s needs. “We try not to come in preconceived like, ‘Here’s the project we want to do, and here’s a good spot to do it, so we’re going to do it for you,’ ” Blake says. “We try to really make sure we’re being responsive, and I think that’s a really good thing for most designers to understand.”

It’s also a good thing for other groups working in the area who are often the studio’s clients. Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, one of the groups building and renovating affordable housing there, has been able to leverage design and planning work from the DesignBuild Studio to apply for federal historic tax credits. “We got professional-level work accomplished at no charge, and the students got real-life experience,” says Mary Burke, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing’s executive director.

Building relationships between the university students and the community is crucial for these types of design/build studios—and almost always mutually beneficial. The ecoREHAB program at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., has been performing sustainable rehabilitation projects on vacant and abandoned houses across the city since 2009. Working closely with the Muncie Department of Community Development, the program identifies projects or sites in need of intervention, and then spends three semesters planning, designing, and constructing each project. At the end, they sell the project to a qualified low-income buyer and recycle the intentionally small profits back into the next year’s project.

Jonathan Spodek, who runs the program, says the single-house approach is intended to focus efforts, but also to target the potential effect on neighborhood development. “We see this as a way the university and architecture students can get a ball rolling. We’re certainly not in a position to take on a whole, large development program, but maybe we can be a catalyst or bring in resources or a design thinking that may not otherwise be there,” Spodek says.

The program’s work has encouraged other investment in the areas around their projects and he sees that momentum building into not just a single house rehab, but in some cases a neighborhood rehab.

But it’s not only economic and neighborhood development that’s on the line. The design/build program at the Tulane City Center at Tulane University in New Orleans is also focusing on building a kind of developmental fluency in the community. In the years after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans has been subjected to what many have called an overdose of planning. Groups, institutes, and design studios parachuted in to propose ways to help the city rebound. But few of those efforts lasted, and even fewer translated into long-term change in the city. In the months after Katrina, the university—and its architecture school in particular—set out to establish a community-focused curriculum that would not only plan projects, but also actually see them through with the neighborhoods as partners. Design/build projects led by the Tulane City Center could see those sorts of projects through in a city desperate for reconstruction.

“The idea was, we can show them what a whole development cycle looks like—even if the idea was modest—and demonstrate our value,” says Dan Etheridge, associate director of Tulane City Center. “We understood that, at some stage, a lot of other people’s contracts were going to run out and they were going to go home, and we were going to be working with our neighbors permanently.”

Some of the center’s most recent work includes a community center and performance venue for a Mardi Gras Indian group in the Ninth Ward, a 4-acre working farm for high school–age youth in New Orleans City Park, as well as a number of prototype houses for some of the poorer sections of the city. Working with the community, Etheridge says, creates an understanding on the ground about how residents can be effective participants in the process of urban reinvestment.

This community-focused partnership approach carried out on a small scale distinguishes these university-led efforts from the larger-scale top-down projects of the past. These studios are proving that putting the resources of a university on the ground to work in and with neighborhoods creates long-term community investment that can actually heal the wounds of the past. —Nate Berg

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