Design Talents Benefit Community

October 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Small plans can lead to big changes.

That was the message from Mark Cameron, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center in Baltimore, Md., when he addressed members of the Grand Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Cameron was invited to speak to members about the importance of working within a community to accomplish social goals by using one’s talents and career. The executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center since 2000, Cameron said the goal of the organization is to make good design and planning available to all, especially those nonprofits and organizations that serve the community.

Many people who are involved with the center commit their time and talent out of a sense of responsibility for their craft, Cameron said. “They need to give back to the community. They have a social responsibility to do good,” he said.

The center allows architects and other design- and planning-oriented professionals to use their skills and talents to serve the community. “We’re filling a gap,” he said.

Cameron said revitalizing an area or building is a way to get people involved in their community. But, he said, “Most people are not sure where to start.”

Cameron said the center helps community members both plan and complete projects, which spurs more interest and investment in the community.

Though he has been actively involved in his share of projects, Cameron said the staff at the center mainly serves as project managers, pairing communities with the professionals whose services they need.

“We don’t want to be a small nonprofit firm,” Cameron said.

Instead, the center uses the volunteers that it has access to and connects them with the groups that need them. Cameron said for every $1 of funding, he can get $2 worth of pro-bono services and funding for services.

In order to initiate the process, community groups have to have an idea, as well as a planning team with six to eight people. Though few groups are turned away, Cameron said, this requirement is enough to dissuade some from continuing with a project.

After a planning team is assembled, the center works to fit them with professionals who will serve their needs, whether it is the renovation of a building for a community center or cleaning up a public park.

Engineers, artists, graphic artists, graphic designers, interior designers, developers and contractors are all in the pool of professionals that Cameron has available.

Services of the center include working on master plans, site plans, cost estimates, feasibility studies, workshops, facilitating, project phasing and providing links with nonprofit and government resources.

Cameron said younger professionals are often involved with the center.

Since 1968, the center has worked on 1,700 projects with more than 4,000 professionals and more than $10 million in donated professional services, which Cameron said has raised millions of dollars in new investments and neighborhood improvement.

From 2004 to 2006, the center worked on more than 250 projects, with 300 volunteers and 18,000 hours equaling $600,000 in pro-bono work.

The center has four program areas: project design, community planning, education and training, and special initiatives.

Project design includes working on a building or public space, such as a renovation or low-cost improvements that may help a community, including parks. Community planning includes environmental design and open space plans. Cameron said this segment is focused on educating about the planning process.

The education and training program uses lectures to address zoning processes and other issues that come with planning. Special initiatives include projects that are “neighborly places.” Using an idea that Cameron said he saw in Battle Creek, the center chooses a neighborhood that needs a little assistance and works to complete it, such as a planting day or working with a school to create green space and an outdoor classroom.

“We help groups to a certain point; then they need to carry it further,” he said.

Cameron said some of the challenges that they have going forward are how to be better prepared for projects, as well as how to follow up with them, recruiting and developing volunteers and finding funding for the program.

Though it may not seem like much, Cameron said setting many small goals is a good way to get started, as is identifying a specific community need and rallying around it.

AIA chapter President Jeff Hammond said he believes a center such as Cameron’s could be beneficial to the Grand Rapids area and asked the AIA members to consider whether it would be viable.

“We feel there is a need for something like this,” Hammond said. “We have to be leaders.”     

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