What does it mean to revitalize a city? A thriving community goes beyond the bricks and mortar of a bustling main street; it boasts sustainable practices, builds a robust economy and strengthens vulnerable neighborhoods. In the face of changing economies and environmental concerns, cities across the country are looking to revitalization as a way of injecting new life into their communities. But what drives a successful revitalization? Is it the expertise of professionals like architects and planners? The collective knowledge and desires of a community? A new design studio project on Maryland’s eastern shore is experimenting with the notion that success lies in a partnership between the two. This semester, fifty-eight graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Maryland’s architecture program are closely collaborating with the residents of Salisbury, Maryland, as they make steps towards a master plan for revitalization. The studio, which is also a beta test for the University’s forthcoming Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS), is pairing student expertise with the institutional knowledge of Salisbury’s residents in a reciprocal partnership that the University hopes will set an example for future learning projects in Maryland.
The largest city on the Eastern Shore, Salisbury is a centrally located riverfront city of roughly 30,000 people and the county seat of Wicomico County. In 2012, Salisbury introduced its 2020 revitalization plan, which centers on transforming a series of ground-level parking lots that separate the city center from the waterfront into a vibrant, mix-used area. The plan projects to add 300 jobs and 500 housing units to Salisbury.
Three previous architecture research studios led by UMD students—a master plan in North Beach last spring and pre-emptive sea-level predictor plans in Cambridge and Vienna—garnered positive results and feedback, prompting Salisbury Council President Jake Day (B.S. Arch ‘04) to contact Assistant Professors of Architecture Luis Quiros and Jana Vandergoot about assisting Salisbury in refining their master plan.
Under the guidance of both professors, students are working to identify areas of opportunity and generate ideas through careful consideration of the town’s needs and obstacles. This includes careful examination of physical growth, consideration of social, economic and environmental issues facing Salisbury, as well as wide-angle and micro-views of the town, what Quiros refers to as “multi-scalar planning ideas: to generate ideas and projects from the city to sidewalk.”
“The project definitely focuses on revitalization strategies, but it’s not just about attracting business or improving the look of the waterfront area,” said Adam Chamy, a graduate student on the project. “It’s environmental, it’s social and even policy-driven. Some of the project will be figuring out solutions to that and integrating them into the design.”
What makes the studio unique, however, is its methodology. In addition to the traditional exploration conducted in a research design studio—site plans, demographics and economics—the students are closely adhering to the principals of participatory design: community engagement on all levels to gather a variety of perspectives of the challenges and needs of the community. This extends beyond polling residents and asking for ideas, according to Quiros, and is more like an exercise in “mutual knowledge.”
“We know that as professionals, we have a certain type of knowledge that we can offer,” explains Quiros, “but more importantly we can’t deny that no one knows the town, its history and its issues, better than the community itself. We are not just note takers; the way in which these two groups inform each other will generate a better solution to the problem than just working alone.”
Students launched their efforts earlier this month by hosting a walking tour and design workshop with the public, a first step in gaining a better understand of what can work—and what doesn’t—in Salisbury. They have also developed a website, www.salisbury.md, which tracks their work while offering residents a platform for communicating with the team. Students will make more visits throughout the semester as well as engage in deep-dive examinations of the town’s economy, site plans and environmental trends, such as the frequent flooding brought on by coastal storms.
Although Quiros and Vandergoot initially developed the studio as part of a continued outreach initiative in the Chesapeake Bay area, the principles behind the Salisbury studio have incited the National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG) to adopt the project for its impending 2014 PALS initiative. The PALS’ mission is to move students beyond textbook case studies by engaging them in real community challenges. With the PALS initiative launching in earnest this fall, Knaap and other program administrators are offering the Center’s support while paying close attention to project outcomes and feedback, treating the studio as a pilot project for the program.
“The holistic philosophy that serves as the framework for the Salisbury project really epitomizes our goals for the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability,” says Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth. “Luis and Jana have developed a project that provides both an important learning exercise for our students and a crucial framework for Salisbury by involving the community in the process. We hope to replicate that this fall with other municipalities.”
At project’s end, Quiros hopes that Salisbury will walk away not just with design renderings, but with the urban, architectural, policy and planning ideas that will ignite the debate needed to revitalize Salisbury. “It would be naive to think we can solve Salisbury’s problems in one semester,” says Quiros, “but generating design ideas will hopefully guide the future of the town and, more importantly, empower the community to keep thinking and working on these issues. Community participation is a huge piece of that puzzle. It is crucial to the future of the profession.”