Giving Contact College of Architecture, Design and Construction

Looking beyond the confines of four walls and considering the overall design of place is an important facet of Auburn University's Urban Studio. Located in downtown Birmingham, the Urban Studio is an outreach program of AU's College of Architecture, Design and Construction that gives fourth-year and thesis students the opportunity to pursue design in an urban setting and engage in community projects.

Fairfield, Ala.
Valley, Ala.

The Studio was founded by the late Franklin Setzer, associate professor of architecture, in 1991. Setzer, along with CADC Dean Daniel Bennett conceived a place for students of architecture to be immersed in an urban environment, in direct and engaged contact with practicing professionals and in active pursuit of the design of great places.

"It is unusual for architectural students to work beyond the scale of a building and think about how their architectural work is part of the larger ensemble of a place," said Cheryl Morgan, the Studio's director. "One of the things that we think is important is the potential for students to not only understand how to make great buildings, but how to make great places."

Urban Studio students have worked on several projects around Birmingham including in the Ensley, Woodlawn and Rosedale communities as well as the Birmingham Historical Society's Buddy-Up Program. Midtown Housing, Railroad Reservation Park, Sloss Furnaces Master Plan, Lakeview and Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard in-fill are a few of the other projects the Urban Studio has been involved with through the years.

In addition to its work with the City of Birmingham, the Urban Studio has partnered with more than 40 small towns (map) and communities across the state to help them recognize their potential and establish a vision for the future. Through his work with Design Alabama, a consortium dedicated to effective community design, Setzer was instrumental in forging the Urban Studio's sense of responsibility and possibility in working with these communities. He founded the Small Town Design Initiative in 1998 to assist civic leaders and citizens in small towns in preserving those things that made their towns special while preparing for revitalization, growth and improved quality of life. With regional planning commissions stretched to their limits and most communities not in a position to hire professional planners, Setzer saw a new outreach opportunity for the Urban Studio. Since that time, the Studio has worked with these communities to develop long-range visions and strategic plans for revitalization.

"It is amazing to see the students catch the spirit of the community and work with real people in real towns and having the sense of their work making a difference," Morgan said. "The communities are always responsive to the students and their ideas and that for us makes it very special because it is not something you might see in a typical design studio course."

Setzer and Morgan took the Small Town Design Initiative a step further by helping to found YourTownAlabama, an organization that provides leadership training workshops for citizen leaders across the state. To date, YourTownAlabama has held 16 workshops with more than 500 citizen leaders from 100 towns and counties. The organization's goal is to cultivate leadership that understands the value of planning, knows where and how to find technical assistance and expertise and has the confidence to take action on a local level.

Through these efforts, Urban Studio maintains its ongoing commitment to work with communities to identify those positive assets that can be the basis of a sound master plan for physical and economic vitality - creating distinctive opportunities for building a higher quality of life, broader prospects in the community and a better place to live.

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