City Planning Students Get Hands-on experience in Clemson Neighborhoods

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Graduate students in the city and regional planning program recently presented to City of Clemson officials a set of bold ideas aimed at enhancing the quality of life in the municipality.

The 13 students in the Professional Planning Studio class studied a neighborhood and a major corridor last fall and offered such suggestions as the addition of sidewalks, stop signs and crosswalks along some roads, business impact fees to reduce infrastructure costs, and projects aimed at beautification and economic development.

Their goal: to improve the safety, unity and appeal of the community.

The students, meanwhile, received real-world experience in neighborhood planning.

“Both entities are helped by this initiative,” said Jermaine Durham, who supervised the students’ efforts as a teaching assistant. Durham will soon complete his Ph.D. in planning, design and the built environment at Clemson University.

“It’s definitely a help for the City of Clemson — the students bring a lot of solutions to the table,” Durham said. “And students enjoyed some hands-on work as professional planners. The majority of the students are going into the planning field.”

Talking to the neighbors

The students focused their efforts on two key areas of the city: the Cadillac Heights neighborhood and the corridor along Walter T. Cox Boulevard.

“The students had the opportunity to explore the major issues in the area to identify what the community’s wishes are,” Durham said.

“Our role was to provide useful ideas for the community and the city,” he said. “Our approach was that the City of Clemson was our client.”

An important part of the students’ work was interacting with residents to find out what they thought about their community and what they envisioned for their future.

In the case of Cadillac Heights, a historically African-American community, students found that the neighborhood is facing the pressures that come with growth. The neighborhood has deep historical roots, with many homeowners who have lived there for generations.

Residents told the students that they’d like to see the familial spirit of the community endure and thrive. Longtime residents of Cadillac Heights know and support each other, the students were told, but efforts are needed to beautify the neighborhood, slow down traffic and promote continued community unity.

Planning expertise

Second-year graduate students with the Professional Planning Studio class have created neighborhood plans for Upstate communities for at least 10 years, Durham said. Efforts in recent years have focused on Spartanburg and Anderson.

Faculty and students chose Clemson this year because “we thought it would build a better relationship between the University and city,” said Durham, who grew up in nearby Hartwell, Georgia.

The two student teams – one for each neighborhood – were led by Durham and co-instructor Shaobo Li as a part of their own Ph.D. work in planning and design.

“Seeing two of our doctoral students shepherd a community engagement project like this one should remind us that planning for our future is not just about drawing maps and calculating returns on investment. It is the process of exercising and encouraging our collective problem-solving skills,” said James Spencer, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. “In many ways, it is the day-to-day practice of our democratic principles.”

City officials, meanwhile, had high praise for the graduate students’ efforts.

“I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of students from a lot different departments on campus and I have to say that this recent group of planning graduate students were exceptionally bright and mature and focused,” said Todd Steadman, director of planning and codes for the City of Clemson. “They produced some meaningful work that will become an asset to the city as we move forward. And I like to think they learned something in the process.”

Cadillac Heights

In long-established Cadillac Heights neighborhood, students studied housing conditions and demographics in the community, which is bordered by Highway 93, the student housing development Aspen Heights, and Fabrica and Hawthorne streets. They pored over city documents and explored the neighborhood on foot. They held a big community meeting. They identified strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities.

They found that Cadillac Heights is a close-knit neighborhood with passionate residents, but the community also is dotted with abandoned homes, blighted properties and vacant stores. At the same time, the community is facing external challenges from developers and increased traffic.

“Our plans address a number of different issues, from infrastructure to the social programs a neighborhood may need,” Durham said.

The students’ recommendations, presented in a public meeting, offered challenges both to city officials and residents of the neighborhood. Students suggested that the neighborhood needs more stop signs and speed bumps to control traffic. They said economic development efforts should target a grocery store and pharmacy within walking distance of the neighborhood’s older residents.

The students recommended that an impact fee should be assessed on new development to make sure new businesses do not put overwhelming infrastructure pressure on the community and city. A neighborhood association could be established to publicly advocate for the neighborhood. Entryway signs and a volunteer garden club, meanwhile, would enhance the look of the community.

Steadman, the Clemson city planning director, said officials were able to immediately address some maintenance issues in the Cadillac Heights community. Beyond that, city officials forged stronger connections with the residents of the community, thanks to the students’ work, Steadman said.

“One of the values of the project was to establish new relationships with residents of that neighborhood so the city can better serve them and respond to their needs,” Steadman said.

Walter T. Cox Boulevard

Along Walter T. Cox Boulevard, a major artery dividing the University from the City of Clemson, the students recommended more sidewalks and protected crosswalks.

One concern is that pedestrians jaywalk across four lanes of traffic to get from the University side to the city side, according to the students’ research. Students recommended that more crosswalks be created and signs posted requiring cars to stop for pedestrians at those crosswalks.

The students’ research indicated that sidewalks are not always available on both sides of the boulevard. Their study also found that elevation differences between the road and sidewalk might not be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The Walter T. Cox Boulevard study validated some of the concerns the city already had about the need to develop a collaborative vision for the city side of the road from the Esso Club to Palmetto Smoke House and will serve as a good starting point,” Steadman said.

The master’s students involved in the project are set to graduate in spring 2019. Durham, meanwhile, was appointed this year as an assistant professor of housing and community development at the University of Georgia’s Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics. Durham also was named UGA’s director of the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing.

“I think the students did some really good work,” Durham said. “They were faced with some unique challenges. They were able to take on those challenges and produce impressive work.”

Prepared by Paul Hyde, Clemson University College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.