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Washington State University School of Design + Construction News – 2016

Rethinking a City: Integrated Design Research Studios

By Seth Truscott, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

SDC students at the Smart City presentations in Spokane.
SDC students at the Smart City presentations in Spokane.

On one side of a knot of overpasses and railroads is Spokane’s thriving University District. On the other is the East Central neighborhood, where 63 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line and fewer than one in three own their homes.

Using smart design and technology, approximately 40 graduate and undergraduate students from architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design worked with the nonprofit University District Development Association and the Spokane Smart City Technology Accelerator Group to incorporate smart city ideas such as interactive environments and data-driven decision making.

Their ideas—emerging from fall 2015’s Integrated Design Research Studios collaboration to develop research and creative outcomes—could help East Central residents take advantage of education and health opportunities next door, said Steve Austin, a landscape architecture faculty member in the SDC.

“Right now, they might feel like it is miles away, but it is just half a mile away,” he said. “If we can improve those connections, residents benefit.”

Connecting the Ben Burr Trail to the district; introducing shared, driverless electric cars; decentralizing power grids; and identifying technologies to grow jobs are some of the ideas that were presented at open houses and final reviews held in Spokane.

Excavating layers with smart technology

“We’ve been exploring ‘ecotomes’— transitions between two different communities,” said Taylor Weik, a landscape\ architecture student. “We want to make the connection between the University District and East Central stronger: culturally, physically, and educationally.”

From above, highways seem like impassable barriers, “but we can get underneath all of this,” Austin said, using, for example, a columned railway underpass that has “some nice architecture—it could be an art experience.”

On a computer, Andrew Cristiani, a senior landscape architecture student, tabs through overlays of East Central’s streets, trails, railroads, water lines, and bus routes. One desk over, Weik has cataloged the neighborhood’s residential and business areas, restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.

“Before a landscape can be changed, its architects have to understand the many systems at play, from the pipes to the parks,” said Cristiani. “There’s so much packed into this small area that the only way to visualize it is to break it apart, layer by layer.”

SDC students at the Smart City presentations in Spokane.

Urban lab for opportunities

The University District, which brings together universities and businesses north of I-90 and east of Division Street, is being transformed by private, state, and federal investments, including WSU’s new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and a $15 million University District Gateway Bridge across the Spokane River.

“The aim of the University District is to make connections,” said Mark Mansfield, executive director of the Spokane University District Development Association. “This includes connecting neighborhoods: downtown and the East Sprague neighborhood, among others.”

The district also connects the strengths of educational institutions with regional economic drivers like the WSU medical school, he said.

“The students’ work is an example of how the district provides an urban laboratory for new knowledge and opportunities,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing the final result.”