Seven eager members of the Friendship Court Youth Leadership Team (YLT) spent the spring semester engaging with UVa students in a class at the UVa School of Architecture called Ecological Democracy. The term ecological democracy was originally coined by Professor Randolph T. Hester from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California at Berkeley. Its main tenet is that community resilience “can be built through direct contact with the social and ecological processes that impact the built world, and that communities are stronger when co-powered to drive decision-making processes themselves.” Addy, Daemond, Emilee, Jarvis, Javisha, Justin, and Tyquan are the YLT members who are beginning to engage in decision-making regarding their community through this process.
The Ecological Democracy course was developed and led by Barbara Brown-Wilson, Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, with master plan design team member Liz Ogbu as a visiting professor. Several graduate students also planned biweekly dialogues with the YLT members. The dialogues began as an exercise to get to know and trust each other and evolved to in-depth discussions and planning to address potential “opportunity areas” for improvement within the Friendship Court community.
The dialogue groups met once or twice a week, usually at UVa.
Katie Deal was a participating student whose interdisciplinary major focused on public and private partnerships that develop equitable models for affordable housing. “In order to develop solutions that fit the community, you need to talk to the stakeholders first to really understand what their day-to-day life is like,” Katie said. “We knew that we could do this with the Youth Leadership Team to learn best practices for human-centered design.”
Human-centered design should ultimately create solutions that work well for everyone involved in the process, and should provide opportunities for those being directly impacted by the design to express their perspective and concerns. This type of design takes longer than the traditional design process and requires flexibility from all parties involved.
The students discussed design challenges, potential areas for improvement, and possible design solutions. The workshops included mapping exercises and brainstorming sessions along with intuitive design tools to visualize possibilities and to stimulate conversation and creativity as the students were asked to reflect on the design and evaluation process.
Through these exercises, the youth came to recognize the opportunity areas in their community. They identified five potential projects in the collaborative design workshops and narrowed those down to two through feedback and a vote. Through several design brainstorming sessions independently led by the UVa students in collaboration with the YLT members, these two opportunity areas were then developed into potential quick-win design solutions.
Over the four months of collaborative effort, the group came up with both short-term and long-term quick-win goals designed to solve each problem identified by the YLT members. Some of the ideas included:
- Creating a space for relaxation and community gathering, which could include benches and planters around the courtyards
- Improving the basketball court area
- Making enhancements to the fence, including opening of the gates all the time, beautifying the area if the fences are not taken down and ultimately taking down the fence
The quick wins are important elements of the redevelopment process as they help provide the youth with a sense of excitement and more immediate visible accomplishments during the longer redevelopment process. In addition, these wins teach them how to use basic strategies and tools to continue community improvement and support into the future. To read more about all the quick-win opportunities and the class, see the course evaluation put together by the students at the end of the class.
This collaboration between the youth at Friendship Court and the faculty and students at the University of Virginia is helping create a supportive platform for improving the quality of life of residents during the redevelopment of Friendship Court. The partnership and leadership program started in 2016 and will continue through 2018. The Youth Leadership Team is designed to involve the youth through mentorship, resources, and coordination. In addition to their sustainable land-use curriculum, the youth have participated in financial management courses, resume writing workshops, interview preparation sessions, and field trips.
We look forward to hearing more throughout the redevelopment process from the Youth Leadership Team about their role in helping create a more inclusive and improved community at Friendship Court.