Urban Futures

Youth interest in urban design/planning is becoming more and more important. Community meetings are often dominated by certain groups: retirees, homeowners, and the middle aged. There is nothing wrong with those groups participating, but the youth’s perceptions of the urban environment are often not heard or neglected. This is why the Urban Design Studio is beginning to work with teachers in Louisville on class units, contests, and more related to urban form.

One of our first collaborations is with senior English students at DuPont Manual High School. Dr. Carrie Coaplen and Mrs. Thayne Bruzsewski are both having their classes perform writing assignments related to their perception of what makes a healthy city healthy. Gauging these perceptions and getting students interested in the interconnections between health and urban form is especially important in the post-COVID era, as office towers clear out and downtown Louisville experiences roughly half the foot traffic it did a decade ago.

To give background to the students, I went to Manual and gave presentations to all the classes on healthy cities, the problems Louisville faces, and some examples of solutions. Students engaged with the subject matter way more than I expected, given the lack of young voices in many forums on urban issues. I also used some of the presentations to gauge some perceptions before the students turned in anything to us. In these classes, I used the time after the presentation to ask a couple questions and use that as a springboard for other topics: How often do you visit downtown? Do you want to leave Louisville after high school or college? These questions are inherently a bit skewed as young people generally don’t love staying in their hometown, but they still provide an important insight. 

The vast majority of students did not go downtown on a regular basis, one class had 6 students who did (out of 25 or so) and that was the most of any class. If you remove the students who live downtown, or only visit downtown for work or school reasons (many students went downtown for choir), many classes only had a couple who went downtown regularly. Many students cited a lack of things to do, most downtown activities are not things a person does on a regular basis like going to concerts or visiting museums. Those who did go regularly were often visiting family or patronizing restaurants.

Outside of a lack of activities, perception of safety was also a major concern. Some students had been harassed in some form downtown in the past and feared it would happen again. There was also discussion on how the emptiness of parts of downtown doesn’t encourage a sense of security when you are walking around. 

The park system and our restaurant culture were often given as major positives for the city. Because of this, students preferred hanging out around the Highlands or NuLu if they weren’t staying in their neighborhood. These areas often provided easier access to parks and shops. One major shift I noticed from my time in high school is the shift away from malls - possibly the result of new policies that often ban teenagers from entering without parental supervision during certain hours.

When asked if they were planning to leave Louisville after high school or college, almost every single student raised their hand. The primary reason given was a lack of liveliness, which is also connected to why many enjoy spending time in NuLu and the Highlands. Larger cities were seemingly preferred, as there are many more events, amenities, and general things to do than Louisville. One student described Louisville as a “rubber band city”, where people generally leave during their youth and return later in life; as younger people seek more energetic areas, but prefer a more quiet life near family as they get older.

These questions would lead to student engagement on a variety of important topics: redlining, gentrification, TARC, neighborhood design, and more. Many were very aware of the systemic problems that face the city and how it affects them personally. What I expected to be relatively brief 35-45 minute presentations ended up filling the entire hour and a half class period. This has all made me very excited to see what the students write for their assignments, which will also be the subject of a future field notes post.

The Urban Design Studio is hoping to work with at least one class every school year on a collaborative unit. If you are a teacher and interested in being involved, please email sean.willis@louisville.edu.