Urban Community Development South End Project
Taking Community Development Inside and Outside the Classroom: How a
Service-Learning Project in Albany’s South End Benefits Students and Communities

Professor HIlary Papineau
Department of Geography & Planning

Students are drawn to the field of community development because they want to make a positive change in their community and help reverse trends of concentrated poverty. Understanding the policies and principles that address social and economic distress in communities is an important foundation for practitioners. But theory has its limits. Students seek and grow from a hands-on community planning experience that allows them to apply planning practices and potentially gain a new perspective on their career.

In the 2015 fall semester, 13 graduate students enrolled in Urban Community Development, a course offered by the Department of Geography and Planning. The class studied the history and theory of community development in a traditional classroom setting, but also took the curriculum out of the classroom and into the community by including a service-learning component: a neighborhood planning project. The class partnered with the South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC), a non-profit organization working to improve housing conditions and the quality of life in the South End of Albany, a historic, diverse and civically engaged neighborhood in downtown Albany facing blight and divestment.

The class was tasked with developing a series of neighborhood planning strategies to promote stability and sustainable development in the South End. During the summer of 2015, SEIC and its community partners prioritized a neighborhood block and five key research topics for the students to focus on: Housing and development, Neighborhood marketing, Greening and food access, Energy, sustainability, and resiliency and Zoning and land use. Over the course of the semester, the class developed five team white papers, one on each topic, and presented their research findings to community stakeholders in place of a midterm or final exam. This project proved valuable for students and stakeholders alike.

Urban Planning student Ethan Gaddy said, "Urban Community Development was precisely the sort of classwork that I had been craving-- hands-on experience backed by academic study. Planning is a practice-based profession and Urban Community Development let us take our studies of planning theory and research out into the real world.” The project was also valuable for non-traditional planning students enrolled in the class. Sarah Twarog said, “As an educational policy student, my knowledge of community development was (prior to taking the course) limited. I will now know to look at housing, local energy, and greening initiatives, amongst other community development strategies as engines for change when I work to improve local schools.”

The students also noted additional benefits of service learning. Community projects can lead to internship opportunities that help build students’ careers. Twarog, for example, said, “Our study of the culture and urban dynamics of the South End inspired me to begin volunteering at a local school, an opportunity that I cherish and may not have explored without our South End project.” Gaddy, on the other hand, observed that service learning has value beyond traditional work experience: “Internships are a good way to get experience, but they aren’t as rigorously integrated into a class. Urban Community Development allowed us to discuss what we were working on as a group, whereas internships provide less peer-to-peer reflection.”

In addition, the students’ perspective demonstrated that service learning opportunities help dispel assumptions or stereotypes about a community. Gaddy said, “The project really drove home the point that there are a lot of forces at work in a community that aren’t always obvious from outside observation.  People brought up in rural or suburban communities can be quick to make judgments about the conditions of urban communities from what they see on television. And while the internet is great for connecting students with ideas from across the world, it can also insulate them from what’s happening right here in Albany."

I was delighted to work the SUNY students. They showed great interest and enthusiasm for their projects and really enjoyed their community work – touring the neighborhood, interviewing local leaders, and presenting their reports to area stakeholders. Their final papers too reflected their interest and careful research of the subject matter. In fact, I intend to follow up with some of the recommendations in the reports. In short, well done!
Monique Wahba, Executive Director
South End Improvement Corporation

Stakeholder feedback also helped strengthen the students’ research by providing information and perspectives not readily available to them. The class interviewed a variety of local stakeholders and subject matter experts who shared insight about the community, shared resources, and validated potential recommendations. Student Hyunjoo Lee found that interviewing and meeting with stakeholders, such as community organizers and residents, answered many of the students’ questions that books did not cover. Project partners also provided guidance on framing the students’ strategies, and the SEIC was especially instrumental in helping shape the structure of the project and final deliverables.

This service learning experience was also beneficial for community partners who found the students’ research and insight beneficial to their work. “The preparation and presentations were very professional,” said project partner Cathe Bullwinkle, project coordinator, Outreach and Education Group for the New York State Department of Health. Bullwinkle provided expertise on community gardens and food access/greening initiatives. She said, “The ability of the groups to see that we need to look at the South End globally was an important breakthrough.” Other partners found the class identified gaps in strategies and partnerships that previous initiatives had overlooked and that students’ “outside of the box thinking” led to innovative ideas. The energy team, for example, developed recommendations to increase the resiliency of housing structures, strategies that Habitat for Humanity is further exploring.

At the same time, service-learning projects are challenging. Information can be difficult to access and these projects are labor intensive for students, faculty, and project partners. Student Hyunjoo Lee observed that finding the right department or person to talk to about a specific question or problem was difficult given students’ limited community connections. The UAlbany Planning Department fosters community relations through classroom projects, internships, and strong faculty ties to local organizations to help bridge this gap. Maintaining community relationships over the long run, however, is not always easy given the short-term nature of a semester and academic year. From a faculty perspective, crafting a project that is substantive but viable within the bounds of a single semester is a delicate balancing act as is coordinating multiple teams and completing the overall project on time.

Despite these challenges, service learning plays a special role in community development for students and communities. South End project partner and director of planning and development for the Albany Housing Authority, Darren Scott, said, “Neighborhood-based planning studios are a vital part of a student’s academic education.  Exposure to people whose lives are buffeted about by decision making that is largely out of their control can put a face on the challenges confronting low-income neighborhoods.  Likewise, disenfranchised residents can be empowered by the touch of higher education.   Hopefully the experience inspires residents and students alike to put planning to practice in neighborhood revitalization, be it through activism or a career – or both.”


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