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Architecture students help revitalize South Bend, Kalamazoo

An architectural drawing of a proposed design for downtown Kalamazoo. / Credit: Kate Naessens – The Observer

Marianne Cusato is leading a new initiative to revitalize underutilized areas of South Bend and Kalamazoo, Mich., while also providing a professional environment and learning opportunities for students.

“It’s a combination of looking at human community development patterns and how we can use that to build a better home,” said Cusato, professor of the practice and director of housing and community regeneration initiatives within the School of Architecture.

During a four-day period, a team of students and faculty from the School of Architecture met with public officials, city planners and various industry professionals in a practice known as a “charette” to discuss and map out plans to make better use of Kalamazoo’s layout. The goal of the project is to make the city more accessible and enjoyable for the public.

“There is no hierarchy in charette” is a phrase senior Angelica Ketcham heard repeatedly throughout her experience that describes the teamwork involved.

“Small, midwest towns are an interesting urban design puzzle because a lot of them experienced urban renewal in the ’80s and ’90s,” Ketcham said. “The goal of the charette is less ‘this is what’s wrong with your city, and this is how we are going to fix it’ but ‘this is what is great about your city, how can we do more of it? How can we emphasize it? How can we revitalize what’s around it?’”

Dylan Rumsey, a third-year graduate student, explained that after the “core downtown area” of Kalamazoo was identified, the next step was to create a zoning plan to support the commercial areas.

Then, the architects had to decide what buildings were worth preserving or replacing, how to better direct traffic to make these areas more commercially friendly and how to utilize the surrounding alley networks to make the street itself more accessible on foot.

“We were really just thinking how we could take the space in between the buildings and best utilize it for traffic and pedestrians,” Rumsey said.

While reflecting on his time in Kalamazoo, Rumsey said he hopes urban planning can be more centered around the consumer experience in the future.

“Designing public spaces should be the number one approach to any kind of urban planning, and I think that is something we’ve really missed the mark on here, especially in middle America, because cities just aren’t nice places to walk around,” he explained.

An architectural drawing created by Notre Dame architecture students participating in the charette project. / Credit: Kate Naessens – The Observer

Now, with the plan itself finished, Ketcham and Rumsey said they are going through the process of compiling the results of the charette to present in a public report in the coming months.

The next charette will be with Habitat for Humanity in Mishawaka during fall break, Cusato said.

“We’ll do three charettes a year, plus a charette lab course, which does the prep work and follow-up for each of the charettes,” she said.

Cusato said students can expect to experience real-world problem-solving from being involved in this initiative.

“For so long, we have been on autopilot, just accepting that the world around us is just the world around us, but with these charrettes, there’s a real energy around them from feeling like you can actually be a part of a solution,” she said.

Contact Kate at knaessen@nd.edu.