Students On the Promise of Design

During the final weeks of the semester, a group of six  students each honed a piece of writing with the aim of publishing it, here, on the BCL Blog, bringing their work and their voices to a broader audience. We are publishing them in two installments. While students were simply asked to bring anything that they were curious about to our writing workshops, some natural themes emerged between the pieces. Today’s collection from Tess, Chenoa, and Sadie all deal with issues related to systems, design, their flaws, and their promise. 

In BCL, we have been asked to think a lot about the way systems are set up in Burlington: transportation, public works, infrastructure, trash and waste, and city council to name a few. One day, we partnered with Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco, Vermont Clean Cities Coordinator, to talk more in-depth about the transportation system. She invited us to think about whom the system serves and whom the system maybe doesn’t serve. In my journal, I wrote this reflection:

Transportation is a human system and it doesn’t work so well if the infrastructure is geared towards personal motor vehicles. Accessibility for all is key – why put a bus stop where there isn’t a curb cut? Prioritizing specific versions of systems can dictate the priorities of other systems.

Why does the transportation system prioritize something other than the people being transported? Upon thinking more about society, I realized that, in many ways, society has become so efficient that it’s come back around to being inefficient. We get so caught up in trying to make commute times shorter that we forget commuting results from shortsighted planning.

Recently, additions and inventions in society have made things easier for cars, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for people. For the short term, it may have worked, but then we’ve had to adapt in inefficient ways. Of course, adapting our ways of life is not an either/or situation – it’s a web of complicated trade-offs. More job availability, more urbanization, and better higher education come at the expense of a less competitive workplace, easy ways to get places, and accessibility for all people. So we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where commuting is a necessity even though that’s not inherently true. Does this truly reflect how we want to live? However, not all aspects of “flawed design” lead to bad things. More leisure time, a larger separation between home and work, and the ability to visit faraway people are all things that benefit us. Have we lost more than we’ve gained? Or have we gained more than we’ve lost? 

Something mentioned in class really got me thinking – disability is something everyone has or will experience in their life even if it’s just temporary. Out of all the minority struggles in the world, physical disability seems like it should be the easiest to understand and change for the better. It is something that everyone is affected by. Everyone knows how inconvenient it is to be on crutches or otherwise physically disabled. To me, our lack of caring for physical disability shows the worst side of American culture — indifference towards the struggles of others. We haven’t designed for inclusion so our whole population is at a loss. Curb cuts don’t just help those in wheelchairs, they make it simpler for everyone to move around the city safely. How and why have we built a culture of being resistant to change if it doesn’t directly affect us positively? That’s the way it seems to always have been – it started the day colonizers set foot on Native soil. How, then, do you reverse systems with such a firm grasp on America?

~Tess Barker

Everyone wants to feel comfortable and welcome in any environment, yet designing for these values proves difficult. In BCL we have been struggling with this challenge as we offer input to the design of the new BHS school building. We spent time consulting with architects leading the design process, alongside educators and community partners to provide valuable insight. On a sunny morning in March, a group of 40 adults and students met at the BCA Center and split into groups, each with a different design task. My group of peers and community partners worked together to design the ideal learning space focused on fostering a sense of belonging and connection. 

We thought a lot about what it takes to design a space centered on these values; we know what it feels like, but what does it look like? This question matters to me because I have a hard time learning and growing in an environment that is not welcoming, while I thrive in an environment that is. A school where students feel welcome might not seem like a priority, but how do you learn if you don’t feel welcome? If you are not confident enough to share your thoughts and ask questions you sacrifice expanding your own learning – and diminish the experience of other students. Belonging and connection are the foundation of any community, especially schools, where risk and growth are essential. The importance of a welcoming environment is unfortunately often overlooked in school design, but our group believes it is a necessity. We brainstormed ways to include the values of fun, inclusion, and comfort, all elements that help to create a sense of belonging and connection. One idea we discussed was including plants and nature in the school. We could all agree that plants made everyone feel happier and more welcome.

Focusing on natural systems in BCL prompted this thinking about nature and its place in learning environments. With Zoe Richards, the chairperson of Burlington’s Conservation Commission, BCL students have been assessing the value of nature, specifically trees. Trees clearly have a central place in the natural world: sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, creating habitats for wildlife, along with a host of other benefits. But what stood out to me is their impact on humans in a more emotional way. I have always felt my mood shift around nature. Being in DtBHS, a school with no windows and no connection with the outdoors, has been more difficult than I expected it to be. The overall involvement with the natural world that I have experienced in BCL has reminded me how much nature helps my mood and my overall ability to learn. Our design group agreed on feeling the positive impacts of plants on productivity and stress. We included plants, windows, and outdoor learning spaces in order to create a more beautiful space while increasing learning. We also felt plants and nature would make the environment more welcoming which would also increase learning.

With my high school experience consisting of a pandemic, online school, and the move to a windowless, sterile DtBHS, it seems my classmates and I have forgotten what belonging and connection feel like. Throughout the past two years, these values have been neglected. I hope that we can help build a sense of community in our current school and design a new school that fosters belonging and connection.

~Sadie Harris

What does the future of cities look like?

As the population of Burlington grows, I fear that what makes Burlington special will disappear. For 17 years I’ve been lucky enough to call Burlington my home. I take pride in how inclusive and welcoming our city is, and love to see people of different backgrounds come from all over and share the same affection for Burlington that I have. I’m grateful for Burlington’s contrast between urban and natural spaces such as the lake, the parks, the downtown space, and the mountains. Having the ability to access so many landscapes nearby is something I’ve grown to value a lot. I adore the variety of seasons. Looking out my window and seeing the first snow of winter is an overpowering joyous emotion. But as I recall all these fond memories of Burlington, I can’t help but fear losing them. Burlington’s population is growing rapidly but the housing stock is not, and I watch as Burlington’s affordability declines. This means our capacity for who gets to live here becomes more and more narrow.  As climate change increases, we see a migration of people coming to the northeast for resources like water and safety from the heat, flooding, and fires. This could threaten the open space of Burlington. And while I would love to see more housing in Burlington to help ease the cost through increased supply, how do we accommodate this influx of people while still keeping what makes Burlington feel so vibrant?

These problems are not only occurring in Burlington. They are all over. The documentary, The Future Of Cities, talks about how nearly 10 billion people will share the planet by 2050. This will affect the world’s already strained resources and the health of the planet drastically. The video explores how transportation technology can shape and change cities. But are people willing to put the time and effort into these projects? Eugene Birch, city planner and professor at the University of Pennsylvania says, “It boils down to politics. And the political will to create cities without slums that accommodate low-income people that accommodate growth. Cities are where the economic activity of economic motion occurs if the cities are well-functioning and well run.” To create cities that work for everyone, we first need to get down to the root of the problem.  It is imperative to acknowledge that everyone in our cities is essential. We must ensure that diversity is encouraged and supported to accomplish a city that works.

Take the Columbian city of Medellin in 2004. The city, built on a hill, was separated by the wealthier people on the top and lower-income and homeless people at the bottom. This created a barrier between the two groups. The city tried multiple methods to combine the two communities but none worked until they thought about what was causing this separation. It wasn’t just division by income, geography was playing a crucial role as well. Medellin built an aerial tram to connect the marginal, impoverished, unplanned neighborhoods to the rest of the city. Building this mode of transportation provides opportunities for social interaction, commerce and collaboration between the two communities. Janice Perlman, author of Favela says “Perhaps the most fundamental change is how Medellin has accepted that informal settlements and the people who live there aren’t marginal to the city’s success. On the contrary, they are essential to it.” If people feel wanted and necessary where they live, not only will they thrive, but the city will as well. 

Medellin was able to create a cohesive community that thrives together through intentional connective thinking. How do we introduce this innovative type of thinking in Burlington? Burlington has the potential to provide a city that is welcoming and accessible to all. In order to achieve this, we need to think like Medellin. We need to create connections among different types of people and have critical conversations about the future of the city. 

~Chenoa Hunt

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