Students in the “Community Development and Site Planning” course at the USC Price School of Public Policy are getting the unique opportunity to have their class projects improve a local neighborhood.
Twelve Master of Planning students presented their ideas to create a physical identity in the small San Fernando Valley area of Valley Glen, adjacent to Van Nuys, Calif., to members of the community at a May 15 meeting held by the Greater Valley Glen Council (GVGC). The course is taught by USC Price Assistant Professor Liz Falletta.
“I’ve never gotten to present to a community where the people who live in the area get to talk to you about the projects and provide feedback,” said student Sean Inkelaar-Cruz, whose project would turn an unused top level of a parking garage into a recreation area for youth and families to enjoy. “It gave us a lot of practical experience coming into a residential community and figuring out how we can make it better.”
The semester-long focus of the class originated with GVGC board member Charles Samson, who came to USC Price offering to work with the school in hopes of finding innovative ways to enhance the neighborhood. His instructions were to focus on small-scale urban interventions that would be realistic for the council to implement one per year given its budget.
Falletta’s course usually has students develop visions for real-world sites, but not for clients who may actually implement the ideas.
“I think this allowed them to get a better lens on the real world in terms of how people react to projects, and how to craft and hone a message about a planning idea,” Falletta said.
Drafts and details
About 50 community members attended the meeting at a local elementary school. The residents heard short presentations from each student and later had the opportunity to see the project details on poster boards or chat individually with the designer.
“All the presentations were amazing,” said community member Leo Santa Maria. “If we could implement just one of them, it would increase the visibility and identity of the community.”
At the end of the night, community members voted on what project they liked best, with the GVGC offering a $1,000 prize to the winner. It ended in a tie, with Winnie Fong and her idea to transform the road medians along Victory Boulevard splitting the money with Kaili Liu and her idea to green the facades of strip malls.
Having community support is no guarantee of what will be implemented — that decision will be made by the neighborhood council at a later date. However, GVGC president Carlos Ferreyra said that the medians have been a sore spot in the community for years and that Fong’s plan to add color and texture with a gradient chevron pattern may be the first project they choose to pursue.
Wong said she felt “honored” that her idea was seen as a viable choice for implementation.
“I spent many hours researching sustainable and cost-effective ways to amplify the medians,” she noted. “I hope that the community moves forward with my project and that I can work with the council on the details of implementation in the near future.”
For the first half of the semester, students worked collaboratively to learn about Valley Glen. They developed a detailed study of the neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses, in search of design and development strategies that would build upon and extend neighborhood identity. Students then broke off individually to come up with three or more ideas, ultimately choosing one to focus on for the final project.
“The class helped me understand that even though Valley Glen isn’t a huge metropolis, there are very real issues in which planners can have a significant impact,” said David Weissglass, whose idea was to use “ledge-steps” to transform the short walls that separate area strip malls into a more desirable place to hang out. “There are a lot of people whose lives can be affected by implementing small and inexpensive interventions.”