U.Va. Architecture School Students Help Community Envision a Sustainable South Bronx

July 17, 2008

July 17, 2008 — New York City's South Bronx neighborhood is poised to become a model for urban sustainable development on a large scale, and a group of University of Virginia Architecture School graduate students have helped citizens and community leaders there visualize their dreams.

For 19 U.Va. students in two studio design classes, the experience was a lesson in urban ecologies, collaboration across disciplines and working with a coalition of South Bronx organizations dedicated to promoting sustainable initiatives.

The South Bronx neighborhood has long been marginalized and neglected, said Kristina Hill, associate professor and director of landscape architecture, who led a studio that explored plans for affordable housing, retail stores and light industry — all while employing sustainable building principles and the creation of a linear park that would connect various parts of the community.

The South Bronx was transformed by a wave of property abandonment in the 1960s and '70s, and a subsequent period of appropriation by government agencies of what was once private property —  sometimes to create new public housing, and sometimes to build highways that cut through vital parts of the Bronx and isolated them from each other and from the Bronx River. In addition, the South Bronx is now a crazy quilt of experiments in housing density, from single-family ranch homes to super-blocks with high rises — and contains New York City’s only remaining surface stream; the rest are underground in pipes. The neighborhood provides "a great way for students to think about what the American city is, both socially and ecologically, and what it means to the American psyche," Hill said.

Communities like the South Bronx, whose population is about 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, too often bear an inequitable environmental burden of pollution, industrial facilities and very limited access to parks, clean air and water, Hill said.

"In a time of increased awareness of the need for equitable conditions for all, the design professions need to take a more active role in becoming advocates, or helping advocates make an argument for responsible design/planning decisions," said Toshihiko Karato, who is pursuing dual graduate degrees in architecture and landscape architecture. "There is a need for the profession to be able to effectively become leaders in the public sphere, so that they can at the least advise government decisions, if not participate in the political process."
Through research and meetings with community members, the students learned that a major barrier for the South Bronx is the under-utilized Sheridan Expressway, which impedes neighborhood access to the Bronx River and does not serve the transportation needs of the community, of which only 20 percent own cars. Neighborhood groups are already working with the state of New York to have the expressway removed.

Hill led a studio that explored opportunities to connect new housing to an open space system that would promote health – for local residents and for the local ecosystem. Her students looked at ways of organizing the housing to promote safe and interesting pedestrian environments, to encourage walking and bicycling. They also incorporated local food production systems, local waste treatment, and ideas for opening up local access to a more biologically-diverse Bronx River shoreline. To anchor the larger-scale proposals for the anticipated reclaimed land, U.Va. students in a studio led by visiting faculty member Makie Suzuki took on the challenge of designing a market plaza at one end, complete with community gardens, outdoor markets and outdoor performance spaces that would reflect the community's cultural links to hip hop, salsa and reggae music and the tradition of family gardens.

"My students found our site suitable for a public or civic space where different communities come together, interact, learn from each other to shape the larger, healthier neighborhood," Suzuki said. The students were tackling a "challenging site."

Creating a healthy environment was one of the community visions the students responded to in their design plans. Although the world's largest food distribution center and the Fulton Fish Market, the major East Coast wholesale fish market, are located in nearby neighborhood of Hunts Point, there is little neighborhood access to markets or grocery stores and to healthy food in general.

Landscape student Christa Kolb designed a plaza that would incorporate reclaimed materials from the highway demolition and provide a weekly farmer's market and educational gardens for schoolchildren. Other students responded to issues of health by designing projects that promoted opportunities for outdoor activity for a community that has the highest asthma rate of the five New York boroughs and similarly high rates of obesity and diabetes.

"For student designers, it was a chance to address important social and ecological issues on a river site that has potential to make an impact for real people," said Serena Nelson, who is pursing a dual degree in architecture and landscape architecture. Nelson envisioned her project with a focus on health by "strengthening connections to existing networks and neighborhoods."

Describing her project, she said, "Where the Sheridan once existed as a divide between the South Bronx community and the river, instead it becomes a spine for water collection and filtration, through terraces planted with soil-remediating properties and the creation of 'community hubs' along stretches that could accommodate composting centers, urban farming initiatives, material recycling efforts, green industry job-training and production and cultural centers. These hubs would serve as resources for education and social and economic networking with existing neighborhoods, restaurants, industries and community gardens nearby. Terraces provide pathways to the river and serve to filter and connect storm water and clean wastewater back to the river."

Landscape architecture student Meghan Mullaney's design focused on establishing access and awareness of the Bronx River at the shoreline through the construction of a floodplain that could filter pollutants and serve as an animal habitat. "If the Bronx River, a unique ecological treasure, can be made more accessible, it will be seen as a priceless commodity that may increase the social, environmental and educational currency for the community," she said. "Public access to the river will become a catalyst for generating enough momentum to push related projects to fruition."

Other student projects addressed plans that would collect storm water for reuse in garden irrigation. Still others tackled air pollution using vegetation and design strategies that included bioremediation to filter pollutants and green walls, a landscape design technique that addresses the need to add vegetation in urban environments.

The student design projects, although varied, all addressed a questions Hill proposed to them at the beginning of the semester: "What would the city look like, the Bronx look like, if designed for local needs? What would happen if you took a local perspective on housing, walking and access to food?"

J. Harding Dowell, who is working toward a master's degree in architecture, said of the experience, "Cooperation with a real-world client is a necessary part of the educational experience, especially at the graduate level. Developing an ability to relate your projects to people outside the academy is vital to being a thoughtful and effective designer."

— By Jane Ford