Emerging Leaders in Architecture is a year-long professional learning and service program created by the Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects This program brings together students and young professionals from across the state for monthly sessions on topics that will deepen our understanding of professional practice, alongside a year-long project to create a meaningful deliverable for a particular community. For the class of 2021, our focus was the neighborhood of Blackwell in Richmond, Virginia. We were tasked with developing a design proposal that addresses the needs of a community on the verge of significant redevelopment while considering the preservation of its history and culture.

View their ArchEx project presentation

Blackwell is a predominantly Black, low-income residential neighborhood in the city of Richmond. Like many inner-city neighborhoods, its history is linked to urban renewal, gentrification, and cultural erasure. White flight and urban divestment have resulted in much of the surrounding neighborhood fabric and culture being erased to make way for newer development, highways, and outpriced housing markets. The residents of Blackwell feel as though they have been continually left out of the conversation and are now being driven out by increasing property taxes and cost of living.

To properly address the historical and present-day inequity, as well as the physical and economic challenges that impact the community of Blackwell, we focused our initial efforts on listening to community members to learn and prioritize their needs. We heard that Blackwell lacked access to resources, especially fresh produce, affordable housing, and physical places for people to gather. Without these resources, the residents will likely be pushed out of their neighborhood due to the redevelopment happening all around them.

As our group discussed how to honor, secure, and support the existing community and culture of Blackwell, we acknowledged that, as outsiders with limited time on this project, we cannot pretend to be experts on the community and cultural identity of Blackwell. The only people who can decide what Blackwell needs are the people who live or work there. So, instead of focusing on a specific structure or a location, we explored ways that we could connect residents with resources that already exist so that they can assert their own agency regarding the future of their community. We have since assembled a “community tool kit” for Blackwell: an entry-level, user-friendly guide for starting a grassroots effort to support whatever improvements the residents decide are most important. These tools have been developed for and in conjunction with the community of Blackwell.

Over this past year, this project and process have taught us all so much about the vital role that community engagement must play in all our projects as designers. We prioritized listening to the Blackwell community, and in response to what we heard, did our best to produce a tool for them that is tangible and practical. We have also partnered with local organizations that are willing to store and distribute this community tool kit so that this information is made continually available to Blackwell long after our ELA 2021 class has disbanded. Now, we look to your financial and professional assistance to put this tool into the hands of the community so that they can continue this initiative in their own unique way. If you are able, please consider financial support of this project to help bring this community tool kit to life.

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