UA students lend their ideas and skills to improving Tuscaloosa’s urban landscape

By:    Date: 09-10-2014

Students create strategies aimed at increasing downtown walkability and creating a vibrant city center through UH 101 PlanFirst, a city-planning collaboration.

BY TAYLOR VEAZEY | PHOTOS BY ALAINA CLARK AND MICA AGUILAR

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Through a service-learning course designed in collaboration with the city of Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama students crafted four plans in Fall 2013 aimed at increasing downtown walkability and creating a vibrant city center.

Eleven students divided into groups based on majors and interests, from engineering to arts and sciences. Each group focused on a different topic: business development, transportation, downtown infill and public arts.

We are realistic about the fact there’s a lot of stakeholders in planning the city,” said Marlan Golden, a senior majoring in history and Spanish. “But everyone’s excited about a chance to voice ideas and general concepts that the city might be able to implement long-term.”

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Mary Sellers Shaw and other students presented their plans to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in December 2013. ABOVE: UA students in the Fall 2013 PlanFirst class created four plans to increase downtown walkability by developing a cultural arts district and adding bike lanes and bus routes.

The student-led UH 101 PlanFirst class partnered with the Tuscaloosa City Planning Department and, at the end of the semester, presented their ideas to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who said the city would implement the proposals in future plans.

While University students make up a third of Tuscaloosa’s population, students are not often involved in making positive changes through city government. One purpose of the PlanFirst initiative is to engage students so they become invested in the success and growth of the city.

Golden said diverse groups are a strength of the course because so many perspectives are brought to the table. His group focused on ways to utilize more bike lanes downtown, improve pedestrian routes and better vehicle-parking areas.

Transportation should be based around people,” Golden said. “Cars are not the only means of getting people around. We’ve got to ask, “Are these street conducive to pedestrians?’”

Before developing their projects, students in UH 101 PlanFirst attended a six-week, multidisciplinary lecture series on city planning and its role in Tuscaloosa. Guest lecturers included city planners, New College professor Lane McLelland, UA land-use law professor Heather Elliot, American Studies Professor Ellen Spears and community members involved in the rebuilding process after the April 27 tornado.

Students also brought Jeff Speck, author of the book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” to Tuscaloosa to speak at an event open to the public.More than 150 people turned out to hear Speck discuss his book and how the concepts it contains could assist Tuscaloosa specifically.

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UA Students brought Jeff Speck, author of the book ‘Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,’ to Tuscaloosa to speak to the public about how the concepts in his book could help improve the city.

Madalyn Vaughn, a senior majoring in accounting and the student director of PlanFirst, said Speck’s visit broadened the scope of the project for PlanFirst students.“It made it more real and exciting to hear his ideas and to have confirmation of our ideas from a professional,” Vaughn said. “We could really see how what we learned applies directly.”

PlanFirst grew out of UH 101 Moral Forum, a fall course the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility restructured in 2011 to examine the challenges Tuscaloosa faced after the April 27 tornado and to encourage students to develop thoughtful projects to address these challenges as the city and its citizens rebuilt and recovered.

My brother, Wesley, and I came up with the idea to have a city-student planning initiative after the tornado, and decided that a course focused on city planning would be the best,” Vaughn said. who led the course alongside John McConnell, director of the Tuscaloosa Department of Planning and Development Services. Vaughn,

The course now takes place every fall, with a focus on a different city-identified need each year. Tuscaloosa city planner John McConnell co-instructs the course.

In Fall 2012, PlanFirst students designed five proposals for improving the Strip, an area of bars, restaurants and retail shops adjacent to The University of Alabama campus.

Student proposals included solutions to help ease loitering outside bars on the Strip, a small loan-incentive program to allow businesses on the Strip to participate in facade improvements in order to make the Strip more appealing, a research-based transportation proposal to close certain roads around the Strip at night in order to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment, a community-based mind mixer, and a plan for UA and the City of Tuscaloosa to work together on repurchasing land around the Strip to create mixed-use developments.

Students’ proposals were utilized by the city of Tuscaloosa’s joint task force with UA.

To learn more about UH 101 PlanFirst, contact the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at 205-348-6490 or cesr@ua.edu.