Public Research, Participatory Planning towards Placemaking
A community arts and design collaborative in Isla Vista
The unincorporated town of Isla Vista, like many college communities across the US, struggles to have a meaningful presence as a neighbor to one of the largest public universities in California. Likewise, UCSB strives to balance its role as an enclave for intellectual pursuit, while fostering a rich environment for student-community engagement. After half a century of growth and unregulated development, the case-study of Isla Vista presents a unique and challenging set of conditions.
“Participatory Planning Towards Place making” continues a multi- year, public art research initiative to expand university investment within a local community context. Through the support of the UCSB Isla Vista Commission and the non-profit , Public Architecture, project lead, Professor Kim Yasuda, has invited architect and urban designer, Seetha Raghupathy to work in residence for one year to direct her planning expertise in the analysis and assessment of the multiple challenges facing this community and to make recommendations in the course of IV’s future development.
Through the first phase of her residency, Raghupathy conducted extensive, hands-on research, interviewing more than 75 university-community stakeholders to develop a group facilitation process that encourages civic inclusion and participation at all levels of planning. Her design of a community network and planning map serves as a platform to explore key issues that address both short and long term opportunities, ranging from the social (student life, economic and cultural sustainability) to the physical (housing and the environment).
Raghupathy and Yasuda, through the pilot demonstration phase of the project, worked with multi-stakeholder advisory groups and existing university resources to catalyze a series of temporary student-hosted programming in key outdoor locations in Isla Vista. The effort taps the potential for creative cultural interventions to develop economically and socially sustainable initiatives within this community. Further, an interdisciplinary study of community capacity draws from current research at UCSB in the geographic and social sciences through the use of emergent GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies in participatory mapping that can support the tracking and visualization of these experiments, while providing valuable demonstration models for community-driven change.
The college community of Isla Vista (IV) is ideally situated next to one of the largest public universities in the country and alongside some of the most beautiful stretches of California coastline. As a unique setting for student life, IV provokes a host of images. For college students, bound for their first experience of independent living away from home, Isla Vista is a new and exciting frontier, full of choices for both their academic and social pursuits. For parents, IV represents a place of opportunity for their children to engage in a safe and successful college experience.
UCSB’s significant role in shaping the 50-year development history of IV has been crucial to the town’s current identity. With a population of 20,000 in 2 square miles, IV is among the densest areas in the US west of the Mississippi. Further, its dominant student population (80% age of 18-22) contributes a youthful demographic twist to a community that has developed over time as a suburb with an equally dynamic public life as most urban university towns.
Isla Vista’s non-owner rental base leaves the narrative of this town to be scripted by its 4-year, transitory student population. Further, IV’s unincorporated status and limited self-governance has made it susceptible to the impact of UCSB’s expansion on housing, resources and livability, creating tensions surrounding IV’s economic and social sustainability as an independent community.
Within this context, there have been manifold attempts on the part of UCSB administration, students and local IV community members to strike a balance between the university’s role in IV as an intellectual enclave and its contribution to a healthy, productive environment for student life.
Most recently, a number of faculty-student driven arts initiatives at UCSB have worked to engage Isla Vista as a new laboratory for teaching and research to explore and pilot opportunities for cultural programming that invest in Isla Vista’s development. In 2007, UCSB art professor, Kim Yasuda and her students began a series of public arts research initiatives relocating them off campus and on site in I.V. as part of a strategic plan to channel academic and cultural resources to the direct benefit the immediate community.
Public Research, Participatory Planning Towards Placemaking was developed in 2009 as a year-long, urban design study of Isla Vista. Through support of UCSB administration and design non-profit, Public Architecture, architect and urban designer, Seetha Raghupathy, was invited in residence to work in Isla Vista from June 2009-2010 to direct her planning expertise and to analyze the multiple challenges facing IV while developing a strategic plan of recommendations for its future development.
In the first phase of her residency, Raghupathy interviewed over 80 university-community stakeholders, including students, residents, business owners and governmental agencies and developed a group facilitation process that encouraged dialogue and civic inclusion. Her design of a visible community network and planning road map served as a collective platform to explore key short and long term opportunities, ranging from the social to the physical.
Raghupathy was cognizant of the ambitious undertaking to address a complex set of interconnected challenges and steered the project towards simple solutions that would ensure multiple, lasting impacts in a long-term community planning process. IV’s existing spatial conditions were studied and several identified among those that would serve best in piloting a series of design interventions. Two locales stood out as areas of critical concern to most members of the community and became the targeted areas for program development.
Pardall Road, IV’s downtown business corridor, continues to languish, despite county redevelopment renewal enhancements. The draw of most students to campus for food and retail services directs commerce away from local shopping. In contrast, Del Playa (DP), a six block-long stretch of student rental housing known for its immediate coastal access and active nightlife, functions much more like a “main street”. DP, zoned residential since the ‘60s, lacks designated public space and pedestrian street amenities that are characteristic of most densely populated urban areas. The streets, essentially designed for curb parking, have no sidewalks to accommodate the large-scale foot traffic on weekends and there are few compatible public spaces for pedestrians to circulate or congregate. Further, the absence of food services and recreation leave few alternatives to offset the high percentage of social drinking that takes place within private residences.
By creating a prominent link between the infrastructural potential of IV’s downtown corridor (food, theatres, shops) and the human energy potential present on DP (3-5,000 visitors each weekend), the Placemaking effort was designed to harness the positive energy of these different hubs of activity and to demonstrate the possible cultural-economic interface between them.
Towards this end, Yasuda and Raghupathy mobilized both the campus research networks and multi-stakeholder advisory groups to participate in a series of temporary, student-driven pilots that would model alternative uses of existing spaces. They encouraged UCSB organizations that already hosted on-campus programming to migrate their events into I.V. to contribute to safe alternatives for weekend and late night activity. The Multicultural Center directors, Zaveeni Khan-Marcus and Viviana Marsano joined forces with many campus sponsors to host political hip-hop artists, “Boots Riley & The Coup” in an outdoor location at the juncture of campus housing and Del Playa for a successful event of over 300 people. Future plans are in the works to make such street happenings a regular part of weekend night programming, restoring a sense of to IV.
Yasuda and Raghupathy also encouraged arts faculty showcase student work on location in Isla Vista rather than in classrooms and galleries on campus. For “HomeShow IV”, Yasuda’s art students situated their projects and installations in their own IV residences, as well as cooperating businesses in the downtown district, transforming private apartments into publicly accessible venues that became galleries, community arts centers, performance spaces and social hubs. Art students also took over a vacant medical clinic as temporary exhibition space, animating IV’s downtown, bringing vitality to an otherwise dormant after-hours district.
Other curricular efforts through the Participatory Planning initiative included the class work of UCSB Geography Professor Martin Raubal and 75 of his students who used GIS (Geographic Info. Systems) to catalogue and map IV’s unique and variant character. Student projects mapped IV’s food pricing, crime, housing, noise, social life, public transit, arts /culture and other key conditions that could inform new and continuing students in their orientation to the physical and social navigation of IV.
The offsite community experiments help to transform the local setting into a fertile laboratory for hands-on research, becoming a unique live/work environment for faculty and students to engage in exercises of civic engagement, cultural development and tangible social change.
These re-visioning exercises have also aided in a better understanding of Isla Vista as a rich and complex web of relationships and influences that are inherent to the proximity dynamics of most university-communities. Raghupathy and Yasuda hope that these planning insights gained over the year will facilitate the means for all members to actively participate in shaping IV’s future.