Texas Target Cities helping communities plan for future

John Cooper

Cooper

Van Zandt

Van Zandt

Whether developing parkland, revitalizing a moribund town center, enhancing tourism or creating a municipal master plan, for more than 25 years Texas communities lacking resources and expertise for resolving issues critical to their future have turned to landscape architecture and urban planning students and faculty at Texas A&M University for help.

This year, in partnership with Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service, the College of Architecture's Texas Target Cities program is expanding to encompass all of the college's planning, design and construction resources, including its four academic departments and seven research centers and institutes.

"The Texas Target Cities program will be a powerful focal point for interdisciplinary collaboration and high-impact learning, teaching and engagement throughout The Texas A&M System," said Jorge Vanegas, dean of the College of Architecture. "TTC will use the talent, infrastructure and capacity of our college and others to solve problems, create opportunities and enhance the quality of life for people and for place in communities across Texas."

Coupled with its upgraded, multidisciplinary capacity, TTC's new partnership with AgriLife promises to expand the program's reach throughout the state, said Shannon Van Zandt, director of the college’s Center for Housing and Urban Development and coordinator of the Master of Urban Planning program, both major TTC resources.

With agents in all 254 Texas counties, the almost century-old extension service provides a wide array of community-based education programs, including youth development, wellness and personal finance in addition to emphasizing agriculture education and environmental stewardship.

“Many of the communities served by AgriLife are also dealing with development-related issues," said Van Zandt. “For instance, some communities want to preserve farmland or protect their community’s unique character in the face of surging development.”

"We can help them address all these issues,” said Van Zandt. “The extension service can help us identify communities in need and we can provide expertise on urban issues and those related to the built environment and its interface with nature.”

Building Capacity

In addition to its expanded reach and continued provision of technical assistance, the revamped TTC program emphasizes training through courses and community workshops that address the most common obstacles to clients' success — lack of resources and expertise.

TTC training helps communities build capacity — the ability to assess their needs, evaluate data and plan their futures, said John Cooper, associate professor of practice and leader of TTC outreach initiatives. With increased capacity, decision makers and citizens alike, informed by research and best practices, can collaborate to make important decisions about their community’s future.

“Instead of just giving them a fish," Cooper offered an analogy, "we're giving them a fishing pole and a tackle box. In short, we're helping them help themselves.”

“Building capacity involves honing skills that people, especially in rural communities, often already have, but haven't had a chance to practice,” said Cooper. “It teaches clients how to use tools such as data collection, mapping, grant writing and plan implementation, and in the process," said Cooper, "they develop a new mindset, grounded in data, for planning their community's future. Hopefully, we will help clients provide greater benefits for more people just by doing things differently and more efficiently.”

In his previous job, for instance, Cooper helped establish job training programs and a farmers' cooperative for a North Carolina county economically decimated by the departure of manufacturing plants.

Capacity-building benefits all involved, said Van Zandt. "It's good for the community and a great learning experience for students. It allows them to work with a community, develop expertise and offer it to those that can't really afford to hire professional consultants.

"The students also provide all kinds of these fresh ideas that consultants might not,” she continued. “They think ‘outside the box’; they are not necessarily restricted by political or financial feasibility and can come up with what some might say are crazy ideas, but these are ideas decision makers might never have had.”

For more information, or to inquire about participating in TTC activities, contact John Cooper at jcooper@arch.tamu.edu or 979.845.6461.

posted July 29, 2013