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Student program revitalizes Gresham



For many students, college represents the last years of freedom before they’re launched into the real world.

For planning, public policy and management and architecture students working on the Sustainable Cities Initiative, college is the real world.

Ten classes at the University and two others at the University’s Portland campus are helping revitalize the city of Gresham, a suburb of Portland, with guidance from professors and encouragement from Gresham city officials in what University architecture professor Nico Larco called a “win-win situation.”

In the year-long program, born from three professors’ ideas 18 months ago and approved for funding as a Big Idea by the University Provost’s Office, professors present students with vacant or underdeveloped spaces in Gresham. Students then work together to find solutions, and when they finish brainstorming, they pitch their ideas to city planners. Later in the year, the students and the city will work together to bring some of those ideas to life.

Larco’s students have been assigned a forlorn concrete path near a MAX Light Rail stop in Gresham’s economically-challenged Rockwood neighborhood. The area is home to the second-highest Latino concentration in the state and also houses a substantial Slavic population. Based on a visit to the light rail stop and the surrounding neighborhood, students have drawn up a diverse pool of ideas to pitch to Gresham planners.

“One group is creating Rockwood Boulevard,” Larco said, a thoroughfare lined with local shops and startup businesses.

Another group’s plan is to anchor the street with large tenants that attract more people. A third group is “looking at a community center to be the anchor of the place, adding high-density housing to bring vitality to the area.”

Another class in architectural programming, taught by adjunct professor Jean von Bargen, has taken a look at four different vacant sites in Gresham’s downtown area and will decide this term which site is best to build a new city hall.

“They had an experiential moment in the (old) city hall, documenting how they felt about the place,” von Bargen said.

Then, students interviewed every department in the building, asking city employees what they liked and disliked about the building and what they’re looking for in a new building.

They’ve organized all their research into diagrams and after a presentation to city planners Thursday, they’ll find the right site and design a new city hall based on their findings.

Von Bargen agreed the program is a win-win situation.

“Typically, (planners) write a plan hoping for someone to execute it,” she said. “Now, the students are coming up with a plan for them.”

A city the size of Gresham typically can’t afford to hire dozens of planners, but with von Bargen’s group of students, the city may as well have hired 27 planners for free.

And students, unlike seasoned professionals, bring fresh, uninhibited ideas to the table.

“Students can stretch, be creative and generate ideas we might not think of to get the discussion going,” said Brian Martin, an associate planner for the city of Gresham. “We want to take advantage of that brainpower.”

University students also benefit greatly from the program.

“They get a chance to deal with real-world constraints” such as space limits and tight budgets, Martin said, giving them an edge over the competition in the post-college
job market.

But one of the most exciting things about the year-long program, Sustainable Cities Initiative Project Coordinator Nick Fleury said, is its infinite possibilities.

“We ultimately don’t expect that the Sustainable Cities Yearprogram is just going to be one year,” he said. “We want to make sure the classes really have some use and utility for the city itself.”

As long as the program continues to grow, Fleury said, it will become increasingly more interdisciplinary. Fleury hopes to add geography, journalism and law classes to the program.

“The program used to be so separated into classes, but it’s becoming much more overlapping,” he said. “It’s really given students the opportunity to discuss something across disciplinary lines.”

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