Architecture that makes a difference

Port Huron: Reviving a Community

The process at the heart of this studio is one which is predicated on a model of discovery.  Typically, the more successful investigations are those undertaken by students willing to peel away layers of information, rather than reacting to initial perceptions and preconceptions.  In many cases, what students initially identify as ‘problems’ prove instead to be symptoms of larger systemic dysfunction, and it is only through diligent research that the true ‘problem’ is identified, and can be addressed.  Such was the experience of Shane Hernandez, which is best expressed in his own words:

Bus stop and neighborhood park

“The project started out as a collection of problems within the ‘southend’ neighborhoods in Port Huron. Although the problems on the surface appeared to be things like kids playing in the streets, abandoned alleys harboring crime and lowering property values, parks going unused, businesses being vacant, and neighbors hardly knowing each other, it was through additional research and conversations with some very instrumental ‘change agents’ that I was able to uncover the real, underlying issues with the neighborhood.

By focusing on relationships within the community and the seeking buy-in of the residents, I was able to create a comprehensive solution.  The relationships went far beyond those between next door neighbors.  They included relationships between residents and local businesses, relationships with other local neighborhoods, a strong historical tie with local churches, and the immediate relationship between neighbors, which in the past included people much further away than just the people next door.

Port Huron was also struggling with very high rental rates and low pride in the neighborhood.  Not only had the neighborhood declined as a whole, but people’s individual properties had been allowed over time to deteriorate.  By focusing on integrating new functions and uses into the community and reconnecting the residents with each other and local businesses, a multi-layered plan was created that allowed multiple levels of human interaction and layers of activity throughout the neighborhood.  As a result, pride in the neighborhood would be created and individual resident buy-in to the plan would eventually be won over.

Example block plan

The solution provided connections to schools, businesses, other neighborhoods, and churches through a large scale plan focusing on two major thoroughfares that would include bicycle lanes and the existing bus system.  On a more local scale, activity was injected into the neighborhoods through the introduction of pocket parks, community gardens, and community pavilions, all constructed out of reclaimed materials from homes beyond repair in the area.  Finally, on a more intimate level, the focus was redirected toward the abandoned alleys, where individual buy-in would be necessary for success.  As the neighborhood came alive, residents would reopen their backyards creating spaces for kids and adults to interact during their everyday routines.

There are two things about the studio that were particularly successful.  One was the chance to investigate a subject that was particularly close to us.  Throughout your architectural education, you investigate all kinds of opportunities and/or problems, but rarely, if ever, is the project something you personally have a passion about.  Massive Change allowed us to investigate something we were passionate about without boundaries.  While you may have thought about the problem before, you had never thought about it with the Massive Change mentality in mind; the ‘what if’ attitude rather than the ‘it will never really happen’ mentality.

The second major success of the studio was the interaction with community members or other influential people directly involved.  The idea of meeting with a ‘change agent’ or ‘local hero’ took the projects to another level.  You didn’t feel like you were simply working on a project for school.  By meeting with others who were just as passionate as you about the subject, you realized you really can do something about it.

The entire experience was eye opening when you realized what we really have to offer to our community.  I don’t think architects get involved enough in their communities and this studio helped us understand the importance of taking action and getting involved.”

Diagram of potential neighborhood impact

Shane has certainly been an example of a design professional who ‘takes action’ and ‘gets involved’ in his community.  Following his involvement in the studio, he took an active role in speaking with the City Manager on the issue and showed his support for stronger restrictions and greater enforcement on rental properties at City Council meetings.  He has also expressed interest in becoming involved in the city’s Quality of Life and Beautification Commissions.

Update:

Shane’s interest in political activism started while attending LTU and only grew stronger through interactions with local government that stemmed from his work in the Activist and Architecture Design Studio.  His studio work has led to several opportunities to work with local organizations in Port Huron including the Blue Water Young Professionals and the City of Port Huron’s Planning and Community Development Department.

Today, Shane serves on the Appropriations Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives and is the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, overseeing a $4.3 Billion budget.  He also serves on the Appropriations Subcommittees on School Aid, Department of Natural Resources, and State Police.  He continues to serve his community by offering free design and planning services to several local non-profits in his free time.

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