Fighting the Tide: UMD Architecture Students Design Sustainable Solutions for Chesapeake Bay Town
Like many of the small beach towns dotting the Chesapeake Bay, North Beach, Maryland is engaged in a delicate balancing act: how to create vibrant economic development, attract tourism and support its diverse, tight-knit community in the face of global warming, and a potentially changing coastline. This past semester, 42 architecture students from UMD's undergraduate architecture program collaborated with community stakeholders to tackle this challenge in a newly piloted studio design course focusing on sea level change. The students' research findings, along with a variety of sustainable design renderings were unveiled Thursday evening at a special presentation for the North Beach community.
"The presentation was a great success," said Luis Quiros, Assistant Professor of Architecture and lead faculty member for the design course. "We had very good attendance and a very positive response by the community and local leaders."
Uncovering North Beach's Challenges and Opportunities
The North Beach/UMD partnership initially formed around a design project for a new performing arts center. However, by the end of the first community meeting, it was clear to students and faculty that the project scope was much bigger. Stakeholders and community members discussed frequent flooding issues in North Beach's business district, noting that the town goes underwater several times a year. Once considered the original Ocean City before the construction of the Bay Bridge, the town is also looking for ways to revitalize tourism and attract more visitors. The studio course soon morphed from designing a sustainable, bayside performing arts center to an in-depth analysis of the town's master plan and how environmental factors may impact future development of the town.
"After hearing from the community, we had a better understanding of the project's complexity," explained student Abraham Murrell. "If we just gave them the performing arts center, we wouldn't be fulfilling our duty as students and emerging architects. What we ended up preparing was a thorough investigation of the issues facing the town."
Under the guidance of Quiros and Professors Paul Mortensen and James Tilghman, students began researching not just North Beach's built environment, but its economic and social environment as well. How much money is dedicated to flood recovery? How is the town anticipating sea level changes and how is that reflected in their master plan? Is the town meeting the needs of its diverse community makeup? The students approached these questions by engaging in an intense and thoughtful investigation of North Beach, poring over town records, maps and data, doing site visits, attending town meetings and engaging in many conversations with the people who live in the town year-round. Blending their research with community input and professional feedback from architects Michael Hartman and Phil McCormick, the students developed six possible master plan scenarios that would build tourism and enliven the community, while protecting North Beach against rising sea levels.
"When you look at a town that is in need of change, you need to look at the bigger picture," explains Quiros. "Not only the design of a building or a master plan, but the economics, the social impact, etc. It is important to engage the community and stakeholders in the process."
A Fresh Look at North Beach
When the students presented the initial findings in the spring, which included economic analyses and environmental scenarios reaching far beyond the performing arts center, many of the North Beach representatives were surprised.
"This project started because we wanted some help looking at the performing arts center, but the students really took the project to a new level that we weren't expecting," said architect Michael Hartman, who is also Chair of the North Beach Planning Commission and a member of the Performing Arts Center Committee. "While initially I think we were all surprised, that has only turned to appreciation. The students embraced the town, really engaged its citizens and provided us with more than just fresh ideas, but also a great amount of data that will benefit the town for years to come."
"What we are teaching our students is the importance of engaging the community in the right way so there is a two-way learning process," explains Quiros. "The way in which you react to community engagement has changed for designers. Before, you asked the community what they wanted and gave it to them. Now, it's a social responsibility to analyze what the community wants and engage with them in a problem-solving process to find the best solution."
Thursday evening's meeting provided the North Beach community a first look at the studio course findings and student proposals. The presentation, developed by faculty and students and delivered by Quiros, gave the town a snapshot of their challenges and assets, offering a comprehensive look at North Beach's economic, social and environmental make up. The results of a performing arts center design competition, hatched by North Beach Mayor Mark Frazer and UMD faculty, were also unveiled, awarding seven students Best Project Awards and a collective $1500 in prize money, which was provided by the town. The arts center designs focused on creating a community space that would be flexible enough to offer a multitude of events and programs, from performances to educational programs.
"One thing that really stands out is that students are proposing sites-based on their research-that weren't under consideration," said Hartman. "The expansion of the program to include other types of public spaces as well as looking at ways to make the performing arts center more flexible and multi-use to foster economic development was really nice to see. The student's fresh opinion allows the town to see what architecture can be. There is definitely going to be a lot of discourse on it."
To keep the project's momentum afloat and sustain community engagement, faculty has also put together a blog with all 28 competition entries, as well as the research PowerPoint presentation. The community will have access to the designs and the opportunity to leave thoughts and comments as North Beach plans for its future.
"I have to commend all involved from the school," said Hartman. "This effort proved to be a wonderful turnout in both participation and talent. It's been really engaging and collaborative experience."
"Many of the people that approached me at the end of the presentation said, ‘Your work and suggestions opened our eyes'," said Quiros. "To be able to impact the future development of the town is a very rewarding end to this project for our students, and what will hopefully be a great start for North Beach."