Greenspace Sustainability Design Town Halls and Make-A-Thon: A model for empowering campus communities to lead the design of sustainable spaces and places
A team of students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) (Orlando, Florida) led a partnership between UCF Student Government, the UCF Office of Sustainability Initiatives, and UCF Landscaping and Natural Resources to host a series of events aimed at empowering the campus community to lead the design for a new greenspace on campus. The Greenspace Sustainability Design Town Halls and Make-A-Thon brought together perspectives from stakeholders across the campus and surrounding community to inform the design of the greenspace, and this series serves as an innovative model that can be used to develop a myriad of sustainable spaces and places by and for campus communities.
During winter 2018, UCF began demolishing Colbourn Hall (CH), a building that housed the College of Arts and Humanities, the College of Graduate Studies, various university departments, and, unfortunately, asbestos, all within a rusted, crumbling infrastructure. The university cleared CH to make way for a new, $38-million, LEED-Gold building, called Trevor Colbourn Hall (TCH), they erected in summer 2018 meters east of where CH stood. TCH ended up with a sizable greenspace to its west, as the space where CH once stood was now combined with the old lawn of CH.
Many people assumed this large greenspace would turn into a new building sometime soon. However, this situation became quite complicated when news broke that the funds to build TCH had been misappropriated by university officials, news that dominated the conversations surrounding higher education at the state level and even made national headlines. Eventually, four university officials were terminated or stepped down, including the President. Most markedly, the ethical nightmare had a negative impact on morale across the campus community.
As one of the largest universities by enrollment in the country, UCF has a very diverse community of involved students, staff, faculty, and stakeholders; however, important land-use decisions are often made only by the administrators at the top, and students, faculty, staff, and community members often feel left out of the decision-making process, even when efforts are made to involve community members, due to the sheer size of the university. Further, such decisions can even feel like a black box, with support and tuition dollars pouring in, and plans coming out that do not always fit the visions of stakeholders. These situations are certainly frustrating, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding the TCH scandal have exacerbated these frustrations.
It is within this context we, a team of students from the UCF Student Government Executive Branch’s Campus Innovation Council, led a project to develop a design for the CH greenspace based on the perspectives of UCF community members from across the university to create a space that empowered the community. Throughout summer 2019, we began to discuss how to not only gain insights from the UCF community on how they would like the greenspace to be developed, but also innovatively put those ideas into action to make the CH greenspace stand for the creativity, diversity, and inclusivity championed by the UCF community, even amidst the ethical scandals associated with TCH and the CH greenspace.
The goals of this project revolved around the central aim of empowering the UCF community to lead the design of the CH greenspace, that it may best serve the community and cultivate healing and growth. To achieve this aim, we set the goals of (1) constructing spaces for both gathering insights and ideas from the UCF community regarding greenspace development and creating actionable designs for implementation; (2) partnering with university staff and administrators to ensure the insights and ideas from community members were practically integrated into the design of the space; (3) and developing a model for future town hall and make-a-thon series that could be applied to achieving various sustainability initiatives on campus. Town halls are useful formats for effectively engaging the campus community with sustainability issues and creating spaces for stakeholders to voice their concerns. Make-a-thons are effective formats for hosting design charettes and competitions. A major goal of this project was to create an innovative model for combining the two to inform sustainability design and land-use projects in the campus and surrounding community.
The concept of the town halls and make-a-thon series began to take shape during the Summer 2019 semester, when members of the UCF Student Government Executive Branch’s Campus Innovation Council partnered with student employees from the UCF Office of Sustainability Initiatives to discuss what would happen to the CH greenspace. Together, we formed a vision for the greenspace as designed by and for the campus community, especially in wake of the building scandal associated with the space. We nailed down a plan for coordinating the logistics of the events, such as booking meeting spaces, making purchases, designing fliers, and getting the word out through a marketing campaign.
From the inception of the project through its development, we built a relationship with the Director of Landscape Architecture from UCF Landscaping and Natural Resources (LNR). Developing this relationship with LNR and a joint vision for how the community would lead the design of the greenspace was crucial to ensuring the insights from the town hall and the winning teams’ designs from the make-a-thon would be implemented in the final design for the CH greenspace. It was also extremely helpful to collaborate with the Director of Landscape Architecture to facilitate the town halls. With guidance from the Director of Landscape Architecture, we developed a plan for facilitating town hall discussions and recording insights participants shared on easel pads.
Parts I and II of the Greenspace Town Halls took place on November 15, 2019, and January 24. 2020. The Greenspace Town Hall – Part I followed this schedule:
9:00 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.: Arrive, survey the greenspace, and doughnuts! 9:15 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.: Open forum and guided group discussion 10:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.: Breakout discussion 10:45 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.: Conclude the town hall
During the Greenspace Town Hall – Part II, we spent the first half of the meeting in a guided discussion and sharing time; then we spent the second half as a voting session, during which participants voted for the most important issues to be integrated into make-a-thon designs. A summary of the proposed ideas from the town halls and the voting protocol, and voting results can be found in the file GreenspaceTownHall_VotingResults_2020 .
The next implementation step was to transition the town halls ideas and participants into the Greenspace Sustainability Design Make-A-Thon. To do so, we contacted sustainability-related student organizations and departments across campus for the launch of the make-a-thon marketing campaign. The campaign included fliers and informational materials about the event, including a Facebook page for the event and a Qualtrics form through which individuals or teams could sign up to participate in the make-a-thon, both hosted on the Student Government Facebook account. We also invited university officials to attend the make-a-thon, such as the Campus Master Planner and Interim President.
We hosted the Greenspace Sustainability Design Make-A-Thon on February 28, 2020. The event followed this schedule:
3:00 p.m.- 3:15 p.m.: Sign in 3:15 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.: Introduction, Explanation of rules & procedure 3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.: Teams break out to create their proposed design 5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Conclude designing and teams each present their ideas 5:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.: Begin judging process, Serve dinner 6:00 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Announce winners, Conclude event
Overall, this project took place over the span of 8 months. The first period of planning for this project lasted from July 2019 – November 2019. As a group of students from Student Government and the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, we developed a vision and goals for the project form July – August. Key planning milestones included three planning meetings between our student group and UCF LNR from August – October, some of which took place onsite at the CH greenspace. During this time, we planned the logistics of hosting the town hall, which included booking a space conducive to town-hall proceedings (we booked the Music Department’s Rehearsal Hall, a building on one side of the greenspace; this space was especially functional due to its tiered seating structure that made sharing and participation in discussions easier than in a classroom with desks on the same level); purchasing materials for the town hall, including easel pads upon which to record participants’ insights, markers, and poster printouts of aerial photos of the greenspace; and purchasing doughnuts at a reduced cost from a doughnut shop on campus. The Office of Sustainability Initiatives’ Graphic Designer made fliers and marketing materials. We launched a marketing campaign on the Student Government and Office of Sustainability Initiatives social media platforms, which was shared by various campus entities and student groups over social media and email in the weeks leading up to the town halls. Parts I and II of the town halls took place on November 15, 2019, and January 24. 2020. The voting session during the Greenspace Town Hall – Part II was the most important milestone that transitioned the focus of the project from the town halls to the make-a-thon.
During December 2019 – January 2020, we transitioned to the second planning period, during which we planned the make-a-thon. We had an idea of what the make-a-thon would look like based on models from other universities and a small-scale make-a-thon UCF Student Government had piloted in April 2019 focused on food and health; our next steps were to plan a schedule for the event, identify necessary materials and purchases, and formalize a marketing campaign. We accomplished this with assistance from LNR to identify which materials to purchase, which solely included drafting paper, as we reused the easel boards, markers, and aerial map posters from the town halls. We also booked a meeting room with many round tables and ordered catering through Student Government. We asked participants to sign up as individuals or teams ahead of time through a Qualtrics form. Five university faculty and staff members agreed to form our panel of judges, including a Professor of Environmental Studies, UCF’s Sustainability Specialist from the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, the Director of the UCF Arboretum and UCF LNR, the UCF Ambassador, and the Student Body Vice President.
We hosted the Greenspace Sustainability Design Make-A-Thon on February 28, 2020. Hosting the make-a-thon was an important milestone that marked the transition from planning and hosting the town hall and make-a-thon series to actually implementing the feedback and ideas into the greenspace. Following the make-a-thon, we met with the Director of Landscape to draft a timeline for implementing the ideas of winning teams into the design of the greenspace.
This project was funded by the UCF Student Government Executive Cabinet’s Campus Innovation Council. Student labor for this project was funded through existing employment by Student Government and the Office of Sustainability Initiatives.
A breakdown of town hall costs: Easel boards and markers: $90 Poster printout of aerial photos of greenspace: $30 Rehearsal Hall meeting room rental: free Doughnuts for participants: $85/town hall = $170
A breakdown of the make-a-thon costs: Easel boards and markers: reused from town halls Rolls of drafting paper: $100 Catering for 50 people: $450 Meeting room rental: free for Student Government Promotional reusable food bowls and utensils utilized for a zero-waste dinner and gifted to participants: $190 Prizes for winning teams (reusable water bottles and fully-recycled notebooks): $300
The total cost of the project was: $1,330
This project resulted in a relatively low-budget, high-impact model that can be utilized in a variety of campus settings to achieve a wide array of sustainability initiatives. Campuses can also adjust this model to fit different budgets and scales of implementation.
This project had wide-ranging outcomes and accomplished the project goals. Moreover, the event was very meaningful to the students, staff, and faculty members who participated. Multiple students from various backgrounds came up to organizers after the town halls and make-a-thon inquiring about how to further get involved with this project and/or sustainability initiatives on campus. Many students remarked on their pure enjoyment of the town halls and make-a-thon because it gave them a space to connect with like-minded people to build something they care about and positively impact the campus community. As this project was a student-led collaboration with faculty and staff members, it reached stakeholders from across the campus and surrounding community; specifically, the town halls and make-a-thon gave the power to the students, faculty, staff, and community members to guide the creation of a greenspace that meets the needs of the UCF community. In surveys sent following the town halls and make-a-thon, participants remarked: “[The town hall] Felt very safe for speaking,” “It was a wonderful session and everyone was polite,” “This [the make-a-thon] was the best event I’ve ever been a part of in college!”
A wide array of students, faculty, and staff members from departments and programs as diverse as History, Music, Environmental Studies, Biology, Hospitality, Political Science, Urban & Regional Planning, Business Services, and the Student Union, amongst others, shared their insights at the town halls. This diverse group of participants brought up concerns and ideas related to advancing the sustainability of the greenspace in all aspects—many participants focused on diversity inclusion, and empowerment by creating a space centered on promoting mental health, food security, and a safe space for students of all backgrounds and identities . Participants suggested partnerships with UCF Cares (UCF’s social services office), Counseling and Psychological Services, Wellness and Health Promotion Services, and other health and wellness entities to create meditation spaces, such as a reflexology garden. Students representing the Office of Diversity and Inclusion presented ideas for collaborating with LGBTQ+ Services and raised concerns for how to best include students who work full time and/or are raising children. Many students focused on the opportunity for the space to contribute to food security efforts across campus by planting edible trees and collaborating with Knights Helping Knights Pantry. Participants agreed the space needed to acknowledge and commemorate the Native American tribes who once inhabited the stolen land on which the university resides.
There were also outcomes we did not expect. Specifically, we did not anticipate the level of support the town halls and make-a-thon would garner from campus officials and administration. Word about the town halls spread throughout the Facilities and Safety Department, under which LNR is housed, and the Campus Master Planner came out to the town halls to hear feedback from and engage with the community. The UCF Ambassador also came out to the town halls and served as a judge for the make-a-thon, and her partner, the Interim UCF President, joined her at the make-a-thon.
This level of visibility and engagement with university officials contributed to the experience of participants and bolstered the sense that the town hall and make-a-thon series served to empower the campus community to lead the design of the greenspace. At a university the size of UCF, this was a unique and very positive experience. Further, the university officials meaningfully participated in the series and developed a stake in the outcome of the design competition. The Campus Master Planner enjoyed the series so much that she asked our student group to help organize more town hall and make-a-thon series to address other sustainability design issues on campus. For example, she would like to collaboratively host a series focused on designing the names and layout of parts of a bike path the county and university are developing through campus.
Ultimately, we accomplished our goal of developing an innovative model for both engaging with community insights through town halls and creating a space for these insights to lead sustainability action. As demonstrated by its success at UCF, this model works at the largest of university communities, and this model can be utilized in the local contexts of campus communities of all sizes and demographic makeup. Other campus communities can use the town hall and make-a-thon model to both engage a diverse swath of the campus community with sustainability initiatives on campus and create spaces for the campus community to lead sustainability and climate action.
Primarily, the lessons we learned related to the logistics of marketing and organizing the town halls and make-a-thon to best engage members from across the campus community and ensure the series of events was a fluid experience for attendees. We learned it is of fundamental importance to ensure the involvement of those directly affected by the space or initiative in consideration. In our case, those directly affected included students, faculty, and staff housed in the buildings surrounding the greenspace, such as those housed in Rehearsal Hall, the College of Arts and Humanities, the Bookstore, and the Arboretum. This is also an effective approach to building a core group of support for the town halls of campus community members who are willing to share the event with the communities they are connected to across campus. Also, it helped to have professors from the Environmental Studies, GIS, and Urban and Regional Planning courses offer incentives for students to attend the event, such as extra credit. Further, we scheduled the town halls and make-a-thon on a day of the week and at times our campus is the least busy to avoid scheduling conflicts that may lower participation. A final piece of advice for garnering community support and turnout is to never underestimate the power of a doughnut in sparking students’ (and staff and faculty members’) interest!
Overall, the Greenspace Sustainability Design series was a very positive experience that practically enriched the sustainability of our UCF community socially and ecologically. An overarching lesson we learned through this project is that the town hall and make-a-thon combination is an effective model for empowering a campus community to lead the design of sustainable spaces and places across campus. We look forward to implementing this innovative model to achieve other sustainability initiatives across campus, and it is our greatest hope we may have sparked some ideas for how students, staff, and faculty members at other institutions may lead the charge in creating diverse, inclusive, and empowering opportunities for the larger campus community to guide the creation of spaces that are more equitable, just, and sustainable for all.