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From Class to Community

U of M takes on sustainability in South Memphis.

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Now that ground has broken on the University of Memphis' environmentally friendly TERRA home in Uptown (see page 19), architecture and planning students are beginning a new sustainability challenge. And this one is neighborhood-wide.

The school's architecture and city-planning departments, among others, began partnering with Saint Andrew African Methodist Episcopal Church a few weeks ago on what they're calling the South Memphis Renaissance Initiative.

"With TERRA, we now know that we can design and build a house that can be sustainable and affordable," says Michael Hagge, head of the architecture department. "The South Memphis Renaissance Initiative is basically an effort to create a healthy, sustainable neighborhood."

About 50 urban-planning, architecture, and anthropology students took a tour of the neighborhood around Saint Andrew last week.

The tour looked at housing renovations done by the Saint Andrew-affiliated community-development corporation, the Works, Inc., and viewed vacant properties. Students also considered the basic needs of a neighborhood: decent housing, safety, places for children to play, and other amenities.

"There used to be a railroad there, but the tracks have been pulled," Hagge says. "How do you take an overgrown area and turn it into an amenity?"

If all goes well, the multi-semester commitment from the university will mean students first working on a neighborhood analysis, then helping to design buildings for housing or day care.

"The planning students may come back and say we could use 10 parcels of housing. Then the architecture students will design affordable housing," Hagge says. "The interior-design students are going to be looking at existing buildings and what they might do in terms of adaptive reuse.

"The ultimate goal for all of this is we want to create a healthy, sustainable community for all the residents and everybody who comes into the neighborhood, whether they reside there or not," Hagge says.

The partnership with Saint Andrew isn't the first time the university has worked with a neighborhood group.

Under the University District Initiative, the school collaborates with groups from surrounding neighborhoods to help maintain healthy communities near the university.

The university is also in the midst of creating a sustainability plan, to be completed in early 2009, which will include a neighborhood component.

"My intention is not just to a plan for what you would say is the campus but a plan that integrates our surrounding neighborhoods," says David Cox, executive assistant to U of M president Shirley Raines for partnerships and adminitration. "Just by our scale, what we do has an effect on the broader community."

And the broader community has an effect on the school.

Because recruitment and enrollment are partly dependent on the safety of the surrounding city, it's in the school's best interest to care about its neighbors.

"We've got to think about the education corridor as one that stretches from the fairgrounds to the university," says Stan Hyland, head of the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. "We've put a lot of resources and intellectual capital into the relationship between the school and the neighborhoods in the university area."

But by partnering with a neighborhood in South Memphis, a good six miles from the university, Hyland thinks the school and its students get a better understanding of the entire city.

"By having South Memphis as another focus, it gives us a handle on being an engaged metropolitan university. We're not just working in our own backyard," Hyland says. "We're trying to build a better understanding of what we're doing as a city."

Hyland thinks Kenneth Robinson, the pastor of Saint Andrew, is using a good model for healthy communities.

"It's not gentrification; it's bottom-up. It's strong leadership, and it reflects what that community is and what it needs to do to be vibrant and healthy," Hyland says.

The real world is good experience for the university's students, too.

"They are seeing the things they've learned about from a theoretical perspective in practice," Hagge says. "It's a wonderful opportunity."

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