Victorian Village's Community Development Corporation was started three years ago with a simple premise. Residents thought if they could create an active neighborhood where people walk the family dog, play in parks, and support local businesses, they could save the area's historic homes.
Of course, that's easier said than done, for any neighborhood. But Victorian Village, home to the Mallory-Neely and Woodruff-Fontaine houses, is maybe one step closer.
Last spring, Scott Blake, one of the neighborhood's residents and the executive director of the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corporation, signed up for the Memphis Regional Design Center's Urban Design 101 class.
"I really didn't know what it was going to be, but several architects that I work with suggested that I take the course," Blake says.
UD 101 is an eight-week course that introduces people to general principles of urban design and shows them how the design of the public realm can influence the quality and success of a community. In the next session, which begins September 15th, students will also learn about the proposed Memphis/Shelby County unified development code, how public art can transform public spaces, and neighborhood-based planning.
"I think people hear the words 'urban design' and think it only applies to cities," says Charles "Chooch" Pickard, executive director of the design center. "It's really a universal language that can be applied everywhere. It's about making livable neighborhoods and sustainable communities."
The mission of the Regional Design Center is to increase the area's vitality and economic stability by promoting good urban design. Though the center has recently begun soliciting public input on the future of Overton Square, Urban Design 101 is its signature program.
Blake says the course helped him tremendously.
"We're constantly in the process of upgrading the neighborhood in terms of infrastructure and in-fill development," he says. "It applied directly to what we're doing."
But participants don't have to be architects or planners. The roughly 20 students in the last session included a developer, a traffic engineer, a politician, an economist, and a teacher.
Interior designer Leslie Shankman-Cohn also took the class last spring. She thinks urban design needs to come to the forefront of the political arena.
"Well-designed cities have a much further-reaching impact than just the growth of the city itself," she says. "With better designed neighborhoods and urban spaces, people have better health."
Communities designed for pedestrians entice more people to walk, which can lower rates of obesity. With more people on the streets, crime goes down. And when people drive less, they uses less gas and reduce pollution. That impacts both the economy and community health. (That's part of the impetus behind Mayor A C Wharton's Sustainable Shelby initiative, the final report of which will be released later this week.)
"The lectures give you everything you need to look outside the built environment," Shankman-Cohn says. "Good design should include the built environment, but it should also include the surrounding environment, transportation, and social issues. ... Everything is interconnected."
Pickard says the highlight of the new session will be a lecture on utilizing urban design principles in mixed-income developments with Richard Baron, the co-founder of McCormack Baron Salazar. The St. Louis-based firm has developed a number of Hope VI projects across the country, including Legends Park and University Place in Memphis.
"They don't just do low- and mixed-income housing. They have social programs that go along with the developments," Pickard says.
Baron's talk, on the use of community organizations to strengthen neighborhoods, will be November 3rd and will be open to the public.
In the future, the center would like to offer Saturday sessions of the class with a broader focus and a more regional perspective.
In Victorian Village, however, the neighbors have a vested interest in halting suburban sprawl and developing a strong inner city.
"The class asked us to consider what a high-density, walkable neighborhood is all about. We want people living here and walking to work at Le Bonheur or walking to church," Blake says. "I had heard a lot of the theories before, but this brought them all together."