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Olmsted Scholar Feature: DesignConnect

by Christopher Roth Hardy, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Members of many communities share a common, if unstated, vision for their home. It may take the form of a revitalized historic district, a new waterfront, a safe playground or simply more street trees.

Most projects require personal and public investment to make these changes happen. To gain this public investment, local groups often need to invest in competitive documentation to get public grants to enable these changes. These groups may have the public mandate to make change, but not the resources to create the documentation to gain financial support. This creates a public improvement ‘Catch 22’ in economically distressed small communities.

designconnect1The DesignConnect team in early 2010

In 2008, Jennifer Ng and I started a student-run organization called DesignConnect at Cornell University, with the support of our faculty mentors Peter Trowbridge, Dan Krall, Jamie Vanucchi, Deni Ruggeri and Pike Oliver. The organization enables design, planning and engineering students to volunteer on public improvement projects in communities in Upstate New York. Students receive academic credit in addition to their curriculum required courses. The students work with a community sponsor and faculty advisor to develop and execute a design strategy for each project.

designconnect2DesignConnect at a public meeting with the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed

The design strategy generally includes participatory workshops to develop a community articulated vision for the projects in addition to site analysis, feasibility studies, design documentation and production. The local governments can use the documentation to further grant applications and inform local spending allocations in public space.

This past summer, DesignConnect made a successful transition to the new student administration. Currently, over 70 students are engaged in 8 different projects in communities across Upstate New York. They are continuing to bring in new projects, coordinate faculty partnerships and enable students to work on projects ranging in size from park master plans to new gazebos.

I have moved to New York City, and am now working for Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Here, I have had the opportunity to be staff member on a large scale schematic design project, to take a small public space project in Queens that I designed as an intern into construction documents and to assist on other projects across the boroughs. While at Cornell I focused my studies on community participation and the front-end aspects of master planning and design. Here at MNLA, I’m learning about the complexity of construction in New York City and the latter stages of design and documentation. I have been pleased to discover that my interest in horticulture, design, construction, community action, and even environmental toxicology are all part of my work experience. I have been able to observe some of the initial DesignConnect projects receive grants and move toward RFPs, and I continue to support these communities as opportunities arise. I am amazed at the diversity and depth of knowledge that is required to practice in our field - from politics to pavers - and I have the good fortune to learn from a new set of mentors.

Chris Hardy graduated from Cornell University in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. He now lives in Brooklyn and works for Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Outside of work, Chris is discovering his new community and has started volunteering in his neighborhood on a small design-build public space.

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