Van Zandt redefining Center for Housing & Urban Development

Shannon Van Zandt

John Cooper

Shannon Van Zandt, the new director of the Center for Housing and Urban Development at the Texas A&M College of Architecture, is redefining and expanding the center's mission in wake of its separation from the Texas A&M Colonias Program, the center's primary focus since its inception in 1991.

The Colonias Program, now headquartered in San Antonio, continues to implement sustainable solutions aimed at transforming the impoverished communities, or colonias, throughout the Texas border region. Though separated from CHUD last March, the program remains an integral component of the College of Architecture.

This division, however, has provided the incoming Van Zandt, associate professor of urban planning and coordinator of the college's Master of Urban Planning program, with a unique opportunity to reshape the research center, which she envisions as an international, Web-based leader in the creation and sharing of new knowledge from interdisciplinary housing, sustainable development and urban research.

"I am excited about CHUD's energized vision and mission and the projects Dr. Van Zandt will be undertaking in the near future,” said Jorge Vanegas, dean of the College of Architecture and former director of the research center. “She comes to CHUD with a solid foundation in research accomplishments in sustainable housing and community development and has continuously displayed recognized excellence in learning, teaching and community engagement.”

CHUD’s expanded mission will be bolstered by the addition of John Cooper, associate professor of practice in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, who will serve as the center's director for outreach. He will focus on the developing external funding sources for the center and oversee the center's outreach initiatives in communities throughout Texas and the nation.

Cooper comes to CHUD after nearly a decade as a program director for MDC, Inc., a North Carolina-based nonprofit that provides workforce development, community development and hazard mitigation services to disadvantaged communities throughout the South.

“CHUD will benefit from Cooper’s experience engaging communities in planning processes and helping them to build leadership and capacity,” said Van Zandt. “This approach — asset-based community development — helps community members to recognize and cultivate the assets they have among themselves, strengthening the community as a whole.”

To lay the framework for the center's expansion, last May Van Zandt hosted a visioning workshop focused on developing long-term goals and strategies. Participants included 20 members of the College of Architecture faculty, community development and sociology faculty from Texas A&M and housing advocates from the Brazos Valley region.

“The participants suggested that the center continue its focus on creating sustainable and equitable solutions for residents and practitioners and promoting collaborative work among faculty, while seeking a national and global profile and expanding its focus to urban and rural areas beyond the Texas colonias,” said Van Zandt.

The group envisioned the revamped Center for Housing and Urban Development:

  • As a global leader in the creation and sharing of new knowledge promoting viable housing and communities;
  • Working across cultural and organizational boundaries to research and develop sustainable practices;
  • Facilitating collaborative interdisciplinary research, education and projects;
  • Informing and reforming policymaking and system change; and
  • Integrating research, education, design and service in the delivery of a comprehensive approach to housing and community enrichment.

“While the list will continue to be refined, it provides a strong and consistent vision for CHUD,” said Van Zandt.

Following up last spring's foundational meeting, this fall CHUD faculty fellows, doctoral students and community associates are meeting again to develop collaborative research proposals and projects and identify funding sources.

She’s also looking to revamp the center’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Urbanism, making it more outcome-oriented to better provide students with discernible and marketable skills, and she is exploring the creation of a new center-led graduate certificate focused on public interest design.

“Public interest design is a growing segment of architectural practice engaged at the intersection of design and public service and primarily focused on humanitarian projects," she explained. "Its practitioners include planners, architects, landscape architects, graphic designers and builders who serve the public rather than a private client. They engage stakeholders in the process of bringing design solutions to populations that typically don’t have access to good design."

Public interest design, she said, draws on our college’s strengths, such as inclusive community engagement, leadership development, grant writing, fiscal responsibility and design for the public good, as demonstrated in its affordable housing and health care facility design projects.

CHUD also sponsors the Social, Economic and Environmental Design student organization, or SEED, whose members undertake public interest design projects in the Brazos County area. Their current project, an outdoor classroom at the Barbara Bush Parent Center in College Station, is nearing completion. The project is funded by a grant from College Station Independent School District’s Early Head Start program serving low-income children.

Van Zandt holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and Master of Urban Planning and Bachelor of Environmental Design degrees from Texas A&M University. Her interests include housing policy, sustainable community development, and social vulnerability following disasters. Her research examines ways to improve neighborhood stability and produce positive outcomes for households, particularly those that are lower-income.

posted September 21, 2012