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At UB camp, BPS students learn to battle blight, one block at a time

Buffalo Public Schools eighth-graders Sevehn Venable and Devahn Carson take part in the 15th annual Fruit Belt Clean-a-Thon and Festival in early June. The event serves as the culmination of the Community as Classroom program offered at Futures Academy by UB's Center for Urban Studies. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By DAVID J. HILL

Published June 30, 2016

“Everything we do in the program is designed to show kids the power of knowledge.”
Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director
Center for Urban Studies

Next week, more than 20 Buffalo Public Schools students will begin a summer camp at UB. It’ll have the hallmarks of a typical camp — fun and education — but the subject matter will be far more serious and hit closer to home.

That’s because the students, middle schoolers from PS 37 Futures Academy and other Buffalo schools, will spend six weeks developing ideas to reclaim abandoned properties in the area surrounding King Urban Life Center on the city’s East Side. It’s one of Buffalo’s most underdeveloped neighborhoods.

“In many shrinking neighborhoods in cities, the housing market is devastated by the existence of a proliferation of vacant lots and abandoned structures,” explains Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning who runs the camp.

“The goal of this project is to design a strategy for bringing these lots and abandoned properties back online by turning these into gardens or sites of public art,” adds Taylor, director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies. The center, housed within the School of Architecture and Planning, has organized the UB Summer Academic Camp on Neighborhood Development for five years now.

Last summer, campers developed a place-based plan that reimagined and re-recreated two streets near Buffalo’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park into a developed neighborhood.

This year, students will use their imagination to create a design that reclaims the neighborhood’s landscape, instead of one that tears it all down or leads to a proliferation of new structures.

“One of the driving forces behind their designs will be the idea of color, that color means something to people,” says Candra Skrzypek, the camp coordinator and a second-year MSW student at UB.

“When they’re in the neighborhood, students will be asked what color they feel the neighborhood is. What emotions does it elicit and how are those emotions transformed into color? How can the community be represented and transformed by reclaiming its visual landscape?” adds Skrzypek, who previously taught middle school science.

Students will use Google Earth images, photographs they take and programs such as Adobe Photoshop to create a final project depicting their visual landscape. They’ll also create a large, physical artwork that is representative of their design.

The camp includes a writing component in which students have to describe their project, explain why they chose the design they did and the impact they hope their new visual landscape would create.

In addition, students will learn about similar projects completed in other cities and the impact they had. They’ll also learn about color theory, the symbolic nature of art and how it can be used to send messages, urban gardening and how visual landscapes can highlight a neighborhood’s uniqueness.

“The camp is great in that it allows students to be engaged in real-world, project-based learning,” Skrzypek says.

At the end of the camp, students will present their projects to their parents, guardians and community members.

The summer camp dovetails with the Community as Classroom program the Center for Urban Studies runs at Futures Academy during the school year.

Taylor started that program 15 years ago to address the many unkempt lots and abandoned buildings students could see each day as they came to school. “It sent the wrong message to the kids,” he says. “We felt that the transformation of that block of vacant lots would be the first step to showing kids they have the power to change the neighborhood.”

In 2001, the center sponsored a “clean-a-thon” in which three dilapidated parcels of land across from the school were converted into a community garden. The clean-a-thon has taken place each year since, and has expanded farther into the community.

Students in the Community as Classroom program also regularly participate in Future City, a national competition in which student teams spend several months creating cities that exist 100 years in the future and that address a citywide sustainability issue. The UB-Futures Academy team has fared well in the competition, including winning the award for “most inspiring city narrative” multiple times.

“Everything we do in the program is designed to show kids the power of knowledge,” Taylor says. “We want to show them how to use what they’ve learned in order to have a positive impact on their community.”