Combining urban design with methods of thinking

This fall, Steve Luoni marked 10 years as director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center. When he arrived there, he recalls, urban design was viewed as beautification or an illustration of policy rather than a method used to rethink how places are made.

The center’s work had not yet examined the structural issues of place and the role of urban design in creating the “triple bottom line” – advancing economic, environmental and social measures simultaneously.

The center is located off campus, a block from the downtown Fayetteville square. It is an outreach program of the Fay Jones School of Architecture, where Luoni is also a Distinguished Professor and the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies.

Back then, the center’s staff was housed in cubicles, with the director in his own office. As the new director in 2003, Luoni instilled a horizontal organization in which everyone shares a similar sensibility about design, teaching and advocacy. Plus, they all work at the same long table in a room with an open floor plan.

With a team approach, each person brings his or her own talents to bear. “The work and the cognitive demands of project approaches drive things rather than job classifications,” Luoni said. “It’s a very fluid, nimble process where what you’re doing from day to day can change dependent upon what the process requires.”

Because the projects primarily address urban scales, many remain as designs that spark and inform public conversation and advocacy for policy change.

“We don’t pursue things for innovation’s sake,” he said. “We take on the difficult, unglamorous problems, and we try to find design’s role in solving for complex issues within the built environment.”

They are actually better known outside the state by public officials and design colleagues who inquire about their ideas and how those can be used in other places.

They recombine issues otherwise examined separately into nine areas of design inquiry – such as low-impact development, transit-oriented development, context-sensitive street design, pocket neighborhoods, watershed urbanism and agricultural urbanism. They’ve even published an award-winning book in one area, called Low Impact Development: a design manual for urban areas.

In the pocket neighborhood concept, housing is clustered around shared space, such as a community lawn and playground, community gardens, a shared street and a low-impact development stormwater management system. The approach invites community revitalization and employs low-impact development concepts, in a housing template that delivers more services at affordable levels.

The pocket neighborhood concept, which was used for the Habitat Trails, Porchscapes and Pettaway projects, has won a combined 25 awards. However, not all of these affordable housing projects are being built, so the center’s staff is exploring the prospect of becoming a developer.

The second design area, transit-oriented development, involves intercity rail, which ranges from regional light rail for northwest Arkansas, which would connect Fayetteville and Bentonville, to a seven-mile streetcar plan for Fayetteville. When the center started working on this concept eight years ago, no one in the region really understood it.

Now, staff members are seen as consultants and experts on the topic.

“Most people don’t get excited by a transportation project; let’s face it, it’s not very glamorous,” Luoni said. “So, by integrating ordinary infrastructural processes into urban design and making infrastructure work even harder in addressing urban livability, we can craft a robust idea about place.”

Earlier this year, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Authority undertook a yearlong alternative transportation analysis to determine light rail feasibility.

For the past few years, the center’s focus also has turned to local food production. They’ve done scenario planning to imagine how the issues of food again can be tied to place making and city making. Food production is certainly part of northwest Arkansas’ history and legacy. For that matter, so are rail transit and urban neighborhoods.

“Everything we look at is really just recalling lost intelligence, more than it is any kind of breakthrough innovation,” he said. “It’s more driven by a kind of thinking rooted in the humanities than it is in technology or science.”

For the staff, 50-hour weeks are typical, and 70-hour weeks aren’t uncommon when a deadline approaches. The work requires issues-driven people who possess a combination of passion, design talent and curiosity, and who are willing to put in that time and want to be in the mix of national discussions.

The center’s staff teaches one studio a semester, with a different focus each time. They encourage students to be curious and diligent enough to try many solutions as part of the design process.

Luoni said that, in a perfect world, the center would have plenty of money and sponsorships to do the work that needs doing. “However, a big part of what we do involves making a case for design because neither the public nor the private realms understand how to connect what they do with design and how design could advance their interests.”

And that, he said, is why the awards they consistently win for their design work are so important. Their projects have won 68 national and international awards so far. Though they don’t typically come with a monetary prize, the awards do bring attention and lend legitimacy to the design concepts.

Like the awareness and clout brought to books and movies that win awards, people pay more attention to things that others in positions of authority have noticed. “It creates symbolic capital,” he said. “It focuses public attention, not just on the work, but on the issues of that work.”

For example, a recent project in Rwanda has gained notice in several awards programs. The project and resulting manual provide designs for holistic neighborhoods that would transition the capital city of Kigali from informal to formal settlements. That manual is now informing policymakers in Rwanda, where it’s being vetted by the government.

At its core, the center always will be about design, Luoni said. He sees them focusing even more on affecting policy and decision making, particularly in the form of scenario planning.

“It’s really about creating a more robust decision-making community so that, whatever design direction they do embark upon, there’s a deeper discussion about ramifications and, most importantly, how to allocate resources.”

AuthorMatthew Petty