October 2, 2003

WSU forges urban development partnership

  • School’s design institute unites academia with the community
    KJM & Associates

    How do universities create and sustain partnerships to bridge the gap between the academy and the community in the realm of urban development? The WSU Spokane Interdisciplinary Design Institute shows the way.

    The world of academia: an ivory tower of ideas and theories, somehow separate from the rest of the world, having little or no direct connection with the issues and problems that communities experience. The community: dealing with real-world questions and concerns about jobs, housing, roads, services, parks, shopping.

    This divide may have existed to some extent in the past, but urban universities engaged with communities can overcome it together.

    Washington State University Interdisciplinary Design Institute, established in 1994 in Spokane, bridges the traditional gap between academia and the community. In its work, it blends WSU’s land-grant and research mission with the role of an urban campus to turn creative scholarship into a real-world benefit for the community, the state and beyond. The institute not only turns out professionals from some of the top-ranked programs in the nation, it also inspires and enables economic development that builds the region.

    Traditional approaches to instruction in architecture, construction management, interior design, and landscape architecture keep students firmly within disciplinary boundaries. You become an architect, you design buildings. You become a construction manager, you build them.

    The institute’s unique approach fosters collaborative learning among design and planning disciplines in a way that goes beyond and between these traditional boundaries, while at the same time contributing to the evolution of the individual disciplines.

    Similarly, in its community-based work, the institute brings ideas and theories generated in academia to bear on complex social and physical development problems. In turn, the act of resolving these problems creates opportunities for generating new ideas and theories, enriching understanding of those issues.

    Partnering with community entities, the institute brings design sensibility to bear on questions about how to live, how to shape neighborhoods and workplaces, how to get from one place to another, where one can stop to enjoy a green space, or how to enable full participation in public spaces for citizens with disabilities.

    Spokane’s story

    Spokane serves as the regional hub of economic, educational, medical, professional and social activities for Eastern Washington. In the past seven years, the downtown has experienced a renewed sense of vitality. A series of successful commercial, retail and housing redevelopment projects have spurred dramatic transformation of the core area, such as Riverpark Square, Steam Plant Square, Children’s Hospital and the remodeled historic Davenport Hotel.

    During that time, the institute has worked with both the city of Spokane and Spokane County to visualize alternative growth development scenarios. These studies helped the public visualize what growth management polices would look like in their communities.

    The city and county recently adopted the growth management plans. The city comprehensive plan emphasizes stewardship of resources that enhance its economic foundations while expanding the region’s quality of life and the physical fabric of its neighborhoods — fertile ground for institute work in the community.

    Semester-long design studio classes take on community projects. Each year, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, an advocacy group that promotes downtown’s economic vitality, teams up with the institute to look at urban redevelopment projects such as the Davenport Arts District or downtown housing options.

    “We see this as a way to turn dry planning documents into something people can understand and get excited about,” said DSP Executive Director Mike Edwards in a 2002 Spokesman-Review story.

    Students and faculty worked with the Sustainable Housing Innovation Partnership, a public-private collaborative group, to create a model community near Spokane Community College using sustainable design principles. Design students worked with nursing students to develop design options for the Children’s Transition Clinic at the Spokane YWCA; and with the leadership of Rathdrum, Idaho, to come up with downtown revitalization concepts.

    The examples — the community benefits and the enrichment of the students’ professional development — go on and on.

    A recent studio project led by landscape architect and instructor Elizabeth Payne and a group of landscape architecture students demonstrates how hands-on student projects can create community excitement and shape public dialogue about urban developments. These students developed a vision for a University District in Spokane: an area encompassing Gonzaga University and the Riverpoint Higher Education Park (home to WSU Spokane and some programs of Eastern Washington University); the lower South Hill hospital district; and the adjacent neighborhoods and business areas.

    The concept sparked community support that attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who is shepherding a $6 million request through the legislative process. The request would fund some of the transportation improvements necessary to foster redevelopment of areas adjacent to the Riverpoint campus.


    The institute also uses “charrettes,” an intense problem-solving activity conducted within an allotted time, to address urban development issues. Every year, students at the institute participate in a community design and construction charrette that addresses an important community issue. Interdisciplinary student teams have only a couple of days to understand and propose solutions to the project’s design and construction challenges.

    In 2003, students developed concepts for a Spokane gateway that might serve as a signature statement for the city and link the proposed University District with the downtown core.

    Past charrettes have looked at the proposed Great Gorge Park, St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute and other projects of community interest. Each year, the owners, managers and developers involved have said the student ideas will inspire and inform their work.

    DSP’s Edwards remarked at the opening ceremony of this fall’s charrette that past projects conducted by students at the institute have influenced brick and mortar projects across the city.

    “Last year’s charrette focused on the Great Gorge Park: the Legislature appropriated $250,000 for the project. Matt Melcher (assistant professor of interior design) worked with his students on the Main Street revitalization project in the downtown core a few years ago; now the Main Street project is coming alive and connecting to Riverpoint. Another project looked at putting a fountain in Riverfront Park — now there’s a fundraiser under way to build such a fountain,” he said.

    Dr. Forster Ndubisi, director of the Design Institute and professor of landscape architecture and city planning, says of their work, “Forging these intentional partnerships is a win-win situation. Our students learn to work as members of multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary teams, exactly the situation they will find in professional design firms, and get exposure to working on real life community projects as well. In turn, the community benefits through the numerous design ideas that students generate, which facilitate a broader dialogue about the design and environmental quality of the Spokane region.”

    Bill Grubich is a vice president with KJM & Associates, a national program and construction management firm headquartered in Bellevue. He serves as chair of the WSU Interdisciplinary Design Institute Advisory Board.

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