Recently, public interests have invited the design professions to address intractable planning problems related to affordability, health, and mobility.

Recently, public interests have invited the design professions to address intractable planning problems related to affordability, health, and mobility. The economic development community, for instance, has identified urban design that enhances a locale’s sense of place as a necessary cultural asset for attracting meaningful economic investments. The public health community advocates “smart” planning to re-establish walkable environments as a primary solution to America’s top health problem – lifestyle disease from a lack of physical activity. Communities dissatisfied with dysfunctional road corridors are demanding reconceptualization of streets and highways as context-sensitive civic infrastructure. Commercial and non-profit developers are seeking new models of ecologically friendly, affordable residential development with sustained market value. Since the vitality of any profession (i.e. medicine, law, teaching, architecture, engineering) and its collective work products are ultimately distinguished by their internalization of the public good, solving for pressing community needs presents opportunity for the design professions to renegotiate their status with the public. The challenge for design culture then is to extend its capacity through development of place-building design tools responsive to complex environmental design problems.

The mission of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) is to advance creative development in Arkansas through education, research, and design solutions that enhance the physical environment. As an outreach center of the School of Architecture, UACDC is developing a repertoire of new design methodologies applicable to community development issues in Arkansas, with currency at the national level. UACDC design solutions introduce a multiple bottom line, integrating social and environmental measures into economic development. Integrative design solutions will add long-term value and offer collateral benefits related to sustained economic capacity, enhanced ecologies, and improved public health – the foundations of creative development.

UACDC is focused on developing models for the everyday public realm, working from the metrics, protocols, and logics of organizational culture, a culture shared by highly structured market forces and government agencies alike. UACDC is developing a longitudinal repertoire of place-building design models in watershed planning, highway and street ecologies, big-box urbanism, low-impact residential development, and transit-oriented regional development. Through work with communities, government agencies, private developers, and corporations, UACDC’s projects investigate the modularity of the environment, emphasizing infrastructural components’ fit with one another.

Prevailing infrastructure models are based upon command-and-control logics regulated by single-interest agencies. A pressing challenge for design is to leverage ecological services in human-dominated ecosystems. For instance, how might watershed planning that improves the 17 basic ecological services offered by healthy streams also become a platform for urban development? Prevailing water management models favor hard-engineering strategies over ecological solutions. Our urban greenway for Warren, Arkansas, solves for system failures related to flooding, erosion, pollution, and water quality through landscape urbanism solutions that double as city parks. Or, how might suburban retail highway corridors be reconfigured as civic landscapes despite the 60 percent allocation of retail property development to parking? Rather than solve for the 400 hours of driving undertaken yearly by the average motorist, our transportation projects for Morrilton, Arkansas, and Wal-Mart, Inc. address the remaining 8,360 hours that the car is parked in “green parking” systems. The objective is to establish ecological thinking – solving for the multiple bottom line – in infrastructural development.

Design centers should not be seen simply as bridges between education and practice, but formulated as distinct third party institutional forces constructing discourse and delivering professional services at a public scale. Akin to the teaching hospital (which is more than a bridge), UACDC aims to advance capacity through experimental design inquiries that combine research, teaching, and practice responsive to mainstream place-building issues. Since a profession is not the sum total of its individual practices (e.g. individual medical practices do not solve for public health problems nor provide research solutions for say, cancer), design centers can be institutional force multipliers that thicken the profession’s knowledge base, market for services, and preparedness for creative problem-solving. We should be careful not to confuse pro bono or service work for meaningful engagement with the everyday public realm. Otherwise we miss the opportunity to develop approaches for entire markets most in need of the high-concept thinking that only the design professions can offer.

-Stephen Luoni