Planning with a purpose

Native New Orleanian learns to rebuild communities

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the resulting destruction forced Jamie McDonald and her family to leave the city they had grown to love.

Trying to rebuild their lives, the McDonald family retreated to Kansas City, Mo.

After relocating, McDonald realized she did not just want to reconstruct her family's life. She also felt called to help entire communities affected by natural disasters. That motivation led McDonald to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in Urban Planning and Design in the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design (AUP+D).

"I think it was destiny that I ended up in Kansas City with a program that would help me restore communities after natural disasters and implement emergency preparedness," McDonald said.

A labor of love

AUPD's four-year Urban Planning + Design (UP+D) program is one of the few studio-based urban planning and design programs in the country. Instead of just learning theory in the classroom, students develop a passion for design and sustainability by contributing to community projects.

As part of a third-year UP+D studio project -- led by visiting professor Theodore Seligson, FAIA -- McDonald and her classmates ventured into Kansas City's 22nd and Vine district.

In the 1920s, the Vine district thrived as a residential, retail and entertainment area energized by legendary jazz musicians. By the late 1950s, though, several jazz musicians moved to New York, residents moved to the suburbs and malls replaced Vine district shops. Although the 18th and Vine Jazz District was redeveloped, the nearby 22nd and Vine district continued to house vacant buildings and lots.

In order to revitalize the district, UP+D students met with community partners to discuss redevelopment plans that would complement the nearby 18th and Vine Jazz District and attract area residents and tourists.

After discussing plans, students toiled for hours at their workstations. Energy drinks flowed and students covered their work with blankets so nobody would see their design secrets. To de-stress, they would take "silly breaks" that involved music, dance or hair-styling.

"It's almost like a family because it's a small program and you get to know people really well," McDonald said. "We'll help (each other) if we're asked for help, but we are highly competitive."

That competitive spirit paid off for McDonald at the end of the semester. When everyone presented their comprehensive plans and designs to a panel of Kansas City design professionals, McDonald's plan placed first.

After the jury selected McDonald's project, a leader from Greater Kansas City LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) offered her an urban planning and design internship.

"The community partnerships have really helped me," McDonald said.

The partnerships have benefitted the Kansas City community, as well.

"The UP+D students and professors are bringing new ideas to the area, and I believe sharing resources will solve some of the problems facing urban core areas today," said Pat Jordan, community partner and president of the Gem Cultural and Educational Center. "The association between UMKC and the urban core could become one of the key factors in its revitalization."

The journey has begun

Although Kansas City serves as McDonald's primary learning laboratory, she and 16 other AUP+D students have embarked on service learning trips to New Orleans with assistant professor Jacob Wagner and associate professor Michael Frisch, AICP. AUPD arranged the trips in collaboration with The Urban Conservancy -- a New Orleans-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the city's urban environment. The purpose of the partnership was to develop economic strategies that would help neighborhoods and commercial districts recover.

Upon arriving in 2006, UP+D students and faculty toured the hurricane destruction.

"Being from there, knowing these neighborhoods and having had friends who lived in these neighborhoods, it was really difficult to see that it had not been fixed yet," McDonald said.

After touring the destruction, the group completed housing and business surveys. They determined which businesses were returning and how to facilitate the growth of new businesses. In creating redevelopment plans, AUP+D focused on how to rebuild the city while maintaining its cultural heritage.

"I help, but right now my best way to contribute is to learn as much as I can," McDonald said. "And I do plan to go back (to New Orleans)."

Posted: March 16, 2010

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"The UP+D students and professors are bringing new ideas to the area, and I believe sharing resources will solve some of the problems facing urban core areas today."

Pat Jordan
Community partner and president of the Gem Cultural and Educational Center

Jamie McDonald, a senior Urban Planning + Design student in the UMKC Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design (AUP+D), helps a student plant vegetables at Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo. In line with its focus on environmental issues, AUP+D is working to transform the school and surrounding area into a sustainable neighborhood.