Design Residency 2018

Life on the Edge: Beyond Urban Redevelopment: The Transformation of a Living Community through Understanding and Design

Eleven graduate students from nine universities across seven states and two countries came together Nov. 5-8, 2019 for RDG’s ninth annual Design Residency.

Residents were charged with solving a challenging design problem: reimagine and reinvigorate the eastern end of Des Moines’ Douglas Avenue Corridor, a section of the city with a highly diverse yet low income population, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of walkability and accessibility and numerous struggling businesses. In addition to its economic and structural challenges, the area is also experiencing side effects of climate change – most of the area has recently been remapped to reflect an annual flood risk five times greater than previously defined.

During their 3 1/2 days engaged in the Design Residency, the residents collaborated with each other and with RDG professionals to process and analyze large amounts of complex information and develop a vision and plan to address the Corridor’s challenges. To determine which aspects to consider in their design, the residents heard from a diverse panel of local, regional and national community leaders and visited the Corridor to explore and photograph the area’s features and to get a feel for its places and people.

On Friday, November 8, the 11 the residents publicly presented “Life on the Edge: Beyond Urban Redevelopment,” their re-imagining of these Corridor sites. After an introductory video, each resident provided insight around what they learned about the site and the subsequent design. Residents shared about the community and its diversity, the role of public health and the context of the site and then shared elements of the plan they had devised in their short time together.

The residents’ plan includes a new mixed-use development on the former Plaza Lanes site, a major public art installation, a return to nature in the southeast quadrant and a replacement of the Euclid Avenue Bridge. The plan also includes increased green infrastructure to enhance flood resilience and reduce runoff and pretreat existing runoff as well as traffic flow and accessibility enhancements to create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly area. A variety of public spaces – event and market areas, a park, community gardens, trail access and a food forest – provide opportunities for community members to engage with one another and their locale, while a signature, high-design bridge becomes a regional destination.

Learn more about the 4 day event


Design Atlas for Climate Resilience

A team of top graduate students, outside experts and RDG staff members came together for 3 days in October for an in-depth exploration of community resilience, risk mitigation, adaptation, and the role design professionals and community leaders play in promoting climate change-resilient communities.

This is a huge topic, with layers of complex and interconnected challenges, and the residency students poured themselves into research and deep discussions of the issues, problems, and potential opportunities that face design professionals. They determined that the technical knowledge and expertise exist to address these problems; however, we lack the public awareness and the political will. It became clear no single solution would suffice. Effective climate resilience, Residents concluded, may rely as much on communication and information solutions as it does on design solutions.

They decided to focus on education as the best tool to build awareness and understanding about the complex challenges of climate change and resilience. Building on the idea of play as a platform for collaborative problem solving, Residents developed interactive learning-through-play prototypes that could be incorporated into school curricula or used in other learning environments, for children or adults.

Innovative design and engineering solutions combined with thoughtful and forward-looking communication, planning and policymaking are now and will continue to be key to successful adaptation and resilience in the face of massive climate change.


Refuel | Relief: Contemporary Design for Public Venues

The RDG 2017 Design Residency examined how re-designing supporting outdoor venues—restrooms, concessions, and shade—could be portable, contemporary and aesthetically pleasing, while still proving cost effective so multi-million dollar investments do not end up with a backdrop of unattractive structures. Innovation and design are inevitable when faced with a challenge, and this year’s students spent 72 hours in Des Moines as they examined these supports spaces, both in the context of Water Works Park as well as unnamed future locations.

Key design ideas developed that lead to the following photographic images:
• Design is a direct response to The Need!
• Food prep infrastructure – keeping it basic
• Beauty of modularity
• Confluence of people around events that include food and drink (specifically in the context of Water Work Parks)
• No need to reinvent the wheel, improve upon existing infrastructure as needed.

Confluence of People, Water, Food.
Process and detailing for modular - flexibility and portability : poles that screens can be pulled out from, poles that can function as light poles, or poles embedded in sleeves, that also provide power near concessions.

Form and Function: Portable, Contemporary and Aesthetically Pleasing



Bin(ge): Repurposing an Icon

For the RDG 2016 Design Residency, we attempted our first rural project site and design challenge: to transform three unused grain bins into new useful spaces for the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. We worked closely with staff from Polk County Conservation, the owner of the 8,300-acre park, to develop the site into the welcome center first prescribed from the previously developed master plan. We brought in nine of the best graduate students in the country to Iowa (many for the first time) to explore not only the site, but the people and culture of the agrarian Midwest as well.

The three bins on the site are among a series of agricultural remnants from a farm which was started in the late-nineteenth century. While the bins themselves are not "special" in terms of architectural interest or rarity, they are a symbol of a small-scale agrarian past which is quickly disappearing. Grain bins are frequently unused now, due to the prevalence of large-scale farming operations; when harvesting over a 1,000 acres of fields, smaller "family-scale" grain bins simply aren’t useful.

The students started their exploration by a unique immersion into the site. They canoed the oxbows which meander through Chichaqua, then met with Polk County Conservation staff to discuss ideas and expectations for the site. That night, the students even "camped" at the Longhouse, in an attempt to get more time on the site. The following morning, the Residents met with a naturalist who walked them through a typical educational exercise – water quality testing. The rest of the second day was spent getting a background on the agricultural and natural history of Iowa, as well as an exploration of how grain bins have been repurposed in the past.

The RDG 2016 Design Residency concluded with the unveiling of a new destination: The Bins at Chichaqua. The Residents laid out a vision of a site which would illustrate our connection with the land. With the tagline: "illuminate the past, explore the future," the proposed site would encourage a frank understanding of our past relationships with the land, as well as provide new spaces to develop innovative solutions to our current challenges.

Underlying the physical improvements to the site, the Residents also proposed a system for future programming: draw, learn, connect, return. This simple motto aims to ensure all new events, structures, and programming attract people to the park, connect people with their surroundings and history, and develop relationships and activities to get the visitors to return. This cycle will hopefully develop new generations of land stewards who not only examine their relationship to the land, but perhaps improve our collective relationship with our environment.



Urban Alchemy

The RDG 2015 Design Residency topic focused on “Urban Alchemy.” We wanted to identify how cities can combine existing and proposed urban elements and spin them into social, economic, and environmental gold. We engaged ten of the top collegiate students from across the Midwest in our design residency process, and challenged them to address a loosely-bounded district in downtown Des Moines near the riverfront that included 24-acres of proposed “re-invigoration” projects. Examples include the proposed new Events Center Hotel, the incoming Hy-Vee grocery store, a possible new downtown cinema, and the restoration and repurposing of the old Randolph Hotel – just to name a few.

Students spent Tuesday night and Wednesday absorbing info from a list of remarkable community leaders participating in small panel discussions. Topics included downtown development, public health and human services, climate change, Des Moines as a Sports Town, and (via video conferencing) case studies of Nashville and San Diego. Davis Sanders and Des Moines Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson kicked off the discussions on Tuesday night with an overview of the new hotel and environs. David Dahlquist and Greg Jameson were among the presenters that pumped up the students with enthusiasm and information for imagining … or re-imagining what could be.

The conclusion of the 3-day “highly collaborative” event resulted in the Residents conception of a live-play-learn-and-earn linear district along Des Moines’ Fifth Avenue, from Interstate 235 in the north past MLK to the south. Dubbed Farms on Fifth, this corridor would use nearly all of Fifth Avenue’s right-of-way for a green space filled with small farms, trails, food and entertainment hubs, and urban gardens – including activated rooftops and living building facades. The main goals driving the green intervention are to embrace the city’s agrarian roots, produce food to meet the needs of Polk County’s 50,000 hungry, and create a signature attraction for Des Moines, all while providing housing (in largely unused parking garages), day care, learning venues, and active recreation. A true visionary look at “what could be” for the community and environment of Des Moines, allowing us to create downtown districts that are vibrant healthy and resilient.



Healthy People, Healthy Places: All the Pieces

Discussions of public health typically focus on access to health care and promoting individual physical and mental health, but these factors are only part of the big picture. What does it take to understand all of the pieces that make up the whole of public health?

It's hard to have public health without jobs. Contaminated water and abused natural resources undermine public health. Spaces unsafe or unwelcoming lead to poor health of people and places.

Our testing ground for the tool? The soon-to-be vacated downtown Des Moines YMCA site (a new facility is under construction). We will shape the means to assess the site, conduct some level of analysis, and (if time) offer a vision for the area's future based on our new understandings.

We’ll test our tool at the macro scale, by using it to understand the City of Des Moines’ Park System. City Parks Director Ben Page has agreed to work with us.



Eco-Corp... Stewardship Through Design and Policy

The intersection of technology and biology meets not at a corner, but along a corridor. A swathe of urban, rural, farm and highway with hubs in Greater Des Moines and Ames, Iowa captures the imagination of business and government leaders. They see bio-economic vitality emerging along I-35/I-235 and resonating throughout Central Iowa as an innovation core of the heartland - generating ideas, businesses, jobs, and exceptional lifestyle choices.

Students of the RDG 2013 Design Residency explored one specific site within this larger context. Bob Riley, President and CEO of Riley Resources, moved his bio-economy based business to a site near the University Ave and I-235 interchange in Pleasant Hill, a community nestled in the southeastern quadrant of Greater Des Moines.

Early projects matter for the bio-economy core to achieve its full potential. Riley, one of the Des Moines area's key business leaders, knows this well. He wants to mark this territory with a site design paying homage to its prairie roots and reaping full ecological and social benefits.

He also wants to dig new philosophical turf. Which business models let Riley and others capture full ecosystem benefits while making money and promoting personal and public health?

The multi-disciplined design residents played multiple roles in working towards the achievement of Riley's goals. They functioned as owner's representative, guiding seasoned professionals as they documented a vision for the site. They collaborated in a design as creators in their own right and as a target audience (examples of the skilled, innovative, brain-trusters) for living and working in bio-economy core.

They also partnered with Riley and the larger business community to uncover or craft new business models to keep the larger bio-economy vision viable and vibrant.

At the end of the intense three day residency, students presented a concept of the site as 'The Edge'- an area for the exploration of where two become one, a meeting place, and a boundary where industry meets ecology. Riley Resources becomes a cutting edge, darting into the future.



Healthy Parks. Places. People.

Parks of the 21st Century, when well-integrated into the fabric of place and community purpose, can transform stagnant regions to vibrant and dynamic spaces of lasting value. This is the fundamental premise of the RDG 2012 Design Residency – that it is possible to create, support and sustain a state park system of exceptional benefit to the economy, to the landscape, to community, to all peoples.

Last year's residency was built from the challenge facing RDG Planning & Design and the Iowa Park Foundation: strategically planning for the state of Iowa's 21st Century Parks System. What must be the vision and mission of a truly health park system? What are the obstacles and opportunities to achieve that vision – at what cost and with what timeline? What are the strategies that must be employed to leverage the full potential of Iowa's parks and overcome challenges faced by this – or any – park system in the country?

From technology to ecology, infrastructure to finance, playscapes to politics, lodges to fishing holes, our Design Residents were fully engaged in the world of parks planning – setting a crash-course example for an upcoming Blue Ribbon Commission on Iowa Parks of the 21st Century.

Residents reviewed current and incoming trends and data, explored model park settings and practices, and dialogue with leaders, practitioners and public. Alongside key professionals, Residents engaged in intense planning exercises to develop vision, mission, and top level strategies for Iowa Parks of the 21st Century. The Residency culminated in a presentation to key members of the Iowa Parks Foundation, community leaders, and the public late Friday afternoon, followed by a reception for and dialogue with the Residents.




The design challenge of the RDG 2011 Design Residency was Riverpoint West. The Residents came to rename this site "The Landing." This 220 acre site tucks between MLK Parkway and Gray's Lake and has been burdened by brownfield, substation, and several abandoned industrial buildings. The site is largely vacated.

The Design Residency demonstrated the value to all of us of multi-discipline approaches to achieve visionary, likely sustainable results. Residents came from architecture, LA, interior design, economics, business, planning, writing and ecology. Each of the students was paired with a mentor-practitioner. Students were exposed to information about the site including some past planning efforts. They participated in table-top discussions with more than 30 community leaders/content experts on everything from commercial development to social equity. And they had a rare opportunity to engage in dialogue with Frances Moore Lappe, founder of the Small Planet Institute and best selling author including her latest EcoMindedness and her first – Diet for a Small Planet.

On the final morning of the residency, students presented rich content on the site, including compelling "day-in-the-life" narratives from the points-of-view of three residents of "The Landing."

At every point the students were exceptionally engaged and engaging. Please check out some of the early results of the residency below.

"The Landing" - Student Presentation Intro Video:




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