Class of 2008 Profile: Working Across Disciplines, Malindi Lankatilleke is Dedicated to Neighborhood Restoration and Revitalization

May 13, 2008 — The tsunami that devastated communities along the coastlines of Indonesia, Thailand, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka in December 2004 had a lasting effect on Malindi Lankatilleke.

Armed with her bachelor's of architecture degree, which she earned at the University of Virginia in 2004, Lankatilleke took a hiatus from her office job and spent three weeks working with the United Nations Human Settlement Program in Sri Lanka to help with rebuilding efforts.

She quickly learned that her design background was not enough to deal with the policy issues associated with rebuilding a community. To have real impact, "you need to be able to understand all sides of the issues," she said — social, political and cultural – and allow the citizens of the community to be part of the process. 

Lankatilleke's firsthand experience reinforced what she had been exposed to her whole life. A native of Sri Lanka, she came to U.Va. from a high school in South Africa, one of many places around the world that her father's work with U.N. Habitat took their family.

"I had seen so much of this work of community building in marginalized communities," she said. "It is so important to allow communities to make decisions and build their visions. It instills value in them and encourages people to build their own assets. The people’s process of development is a much more effective way for marginalized communities to sustain themselves and be self-reliant."

Lankatilleke kept this vision with her when she applied to graduate schools, seeking dual master's degrees in architecture and planning. She said a major factor in her decision to return to U.Va. was the Architecture School's commitment to community activism and outreach. She also knew the faculty's expertise in both disciplines would be a great resource for her. "The faculty work closely with the students and are available," Lankatilleke said. "They inspire in so many different ways."

Her three-year process culminated this year in fashioning her thesis in both architecture and planning around a single project. The project was to build community through architecture by working in collaboration with People's Homesteading Group, a local Baltimore community development organization dedicated to providing decent, affordable housing in the downtrodden Greenmount Avenue corridor of the city.

"The People's Homesteading Group is working with the city to acquire properties, to rebuild from scratch or rehabilitate them," Lankatilleke said. Residents participate by providing sweat equity, and many collaborators in the Homesteading Group are invested in the community or live there. PHG works towards encouraging private and public reinvestment through acquiring properties and rehabilitating them.
The program is an example of how building coalitions can successfully transform a community. PHG is building on a commitment the city made in 2005 to invest in a large redevelopment effort for more than 260 properties in the area, Lankatilleke added.

For the planning portion of her thesis, Lankatilleke explored options for redevelopment and worked with the community to develop possible solutions for mixed-use planning that includes market-priced housing, affordable housing, offices and retail space that would improve life in the area.

"The People's Homesteading Group is wrestling with both architectural and planning issues simultaneously. The area's recent development has been very poor because developers and planners have said that 'This is the best that can be done,'" said William Morrish, Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture and one of Lankatilleke's thesis advisers.

"Malindi's work has given the group a richer vocabulary to speak about their goals for the future, a clearer understanding of the design options than standard solutions."

For her architecture design thesis, she created plans for the development of a neighborhood block that already houses civic buildings and is adjacent to a park. Her plans include a variety of different housing types, including multi-generational and affordable housing, work space and housing for artists and market-rate housing and assisted-living units. The street-level floor of her design incorporates opportunities for commercial and institutional ventures, plus a large public courtyard to serve both residents and other members of the neighborhood. The courtyard entryway is planned to include a bank and a neighborhood open-air market, a Baltimore-area tradition.

"Malindi's analysis and design decisions were informed by a high level of information and detail about those who live in the neighborhood and what their needs are," said associate professor Craig Barton, chairman of the Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. "She knows how to read the data and applied the skills and experience she gained training as a planner.

"Working between disciplines, whether it involves taking a course or pursuing dual degrees, gives U.Va. students a level of skill that distinguishes them from their peers in other institutions."

During her graduate studies at U.Va., the School of Architecture awarded Lankatilleke the Lester A. Sorenson Sr. Scholarship and Fellowship in Architecture. She also was elected a member of the Raven Society and an Edgar F. Shannon Award for the "best graduating student" from the School of Architecture from the Z Society.

Lankatilleke is committed to continuing to combine architectural design and planning in community redevelopment work. After graduation, she will join the People's Homesteading Group in the role of a housing development project manager.

In addition to putting into action the knowledge she has acquired in architecture and planning, she will call upon experience she gained in working as assistant liaison and assistant to the building manager with the construction team building two new additions to the Architecture School. Being exposed to construction, how things go together and how architects and builders work together, is another skill she will bring to her new job, she said.

— By Jane Ford