A group of Austin-area teens learn how architects and engineers work to improve their community.
Along Chicago Avenue, students work together to renovate their neighborhood through urban design.
Keishjuan Owens, 22, is a program management intern at Territory, a youth-led nonprofit that teaches students about urban design. He works with teens to design items to uplift the Austin community.
“They actually get the experience to understand that this is real life and that we can actually make a change, and especially if there are more of us, the change can happen faster,” Owens said. “So I think the sense of community is definitely starting to get them to open up and respect each other and be optimistic about the future.”
The project is part of the city’s INVEST South/West initiative and is led by the Chicago Department of Transportation. The initiative works with a variety of partners to revitalize marginalized communities. Territory’s project will focus on the design of new outdoor spaces on Chicago Avenue, from Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue.
“So it’s a Streetscape improvement for pavement,” said Chris Wolf of Civic Tech Engineering. “That means replacing the sidewalk, replacing the curbs, replacing the lights, so it’s a new aesthetic treatment of the hallway to give it a nice modern feel and we’re working with the community to allow them to put their own spin on it. “
The vision is to transform a strip of Chicago Avenue into the Soul City Corridor, a commercial strip supporting black businesses and community engagement. Plans for the territory focus on creating safe spaces for young people to host pop-up markets and outdoor fashion shows.
“I just want to see everyone in my community coming together to make the community look better. I mean we all think the same,” said Jacara Walker, a student participant.
Walker is one of the Territory participants working to design Peace Circles, which are outdoor resting areas focused on encouraging unity.
“There are a lot of people in my community who are suffering in silence and I feel like Peace Circles will bring people together,” Walker said. “Strangers or people you might know, you can come and sit down and talk about whatever you want to talk about.”
Students gain hands-on experience working alongside architects and engineers. Isobel Araujo, program manager at Territory, says the program empowers teens to be the change in their neighborhood.
“To see young people find power and their voice, whether it’s presenting at a community meeting or building a design vocabulary with peers, or simply taking up space in public…” said Araujo. “It makes me really proud.”
Owens says the project is more than just a makeover, but an opportunity to break generational patterns in his community and focus on the people working to make the area a better place.
“My ultimate goal is to create a generational formula that everyone in the neighborhood can follow, regardless of your role in the neighborhood, and be able to build a beloved community,” Owens said. “I want us to be known for things that are very much related to our culture, as people. To stop changing negative stereotypes as black people.
Once student proposals are finalized, construction is expected to begin this year.