Empowering communities through literature and design

Nicole Little on stage presenting her project Sustainable Vision Planning.

Photo: Douglas Levere

by Charles Wingfelder

Published May 29, 2020


UB student Nicole Little has put her design skills to work for Buffalo’s Fruit Belt community, helping residents to visualize alternate futures for their built environment through the creation of their own graphic novel.

The idea also won Little first place in UB’s Work in Real Time competition, a new monthly “salon-meets-project incubator” that provides a public forum in which artists and designers can present their in-progress work. She is a 2020 graduate of UB's MAch/MUP program.

In competition for funding and advising opportunities, participants pitch their proposals in a rapid format to the audience and a panel of judges, who provide immediate feedback to each proposal, and select a winner at the end of the evening. Organized by UB Arts Collaboratory in partnership with UB’s Center for the Arts, the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, Kyla Kegler (MFA ‘18) and UB faculty and students, Work in Real Time aims to support new “directions, practices, or collaborations” and “cross-pollination between disciplines, sensibilities, and cities.”

People in the audience talking during rapid brainstorming activity.

During her presentation, Little had members of the audience participate in a rapid, 45 second brainstorming challenge to co-create their unique sustainable future. Photo: Dougla Levere

The judges were won over by Little’s idea for a graphic novel that presents imagined alternatives to the reality of the current built environment. These “visionary plans” were developed through a workshop with the Fruit Belt community on the East Side of Buffalo, imagining buildings as the novel’s protagonists who are restored with social and environmental values. Further consultation with local organizations, academics, and building experts helped to imagine pathways towards these desired future states.

Little's proposal also served as her MUP thesis, winning her the 2020 Best Thesis prize in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

During her time as a MArch/MUP student Little studied in the Ecological Practices graduate research group in the Department of Architecture, and participated in the Food Systems and Healthy Communities specialization in the Department of Planning. In addition, she worked with the Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity, and previously interned for NYS Office of General Services Design and Construction and for the UB Center for Urban Studies.

Nicole Little on stage receiving a large fake check from judges.

Photo: Douglas Levere

Conversation with Nicole

What was your experience participating in the program? 
“The event was fast-paced, fun, and a great venue to test my idea and get feedback from a fresh interdisciplinary perspective. It was set up to feel like we were actually on the TV show ‘Shark Tank,’ with lights, cameras, interviews - all that fun stuff. The judges themselves were less scary than the ones from the show; in fact, they were very curious and constructive with their questions and feedback, all with diverse perspectives and impressive backgrounds. I ended up making a lot of connections, both at and since the event, which I think will be helpful with this project and beyond.”  

What in-progress work did you present (and what was the feedback from the judges)?
“I am currently working on co-creating a graphic novel with residents of the Fruit Belt, along with assistance from artists, architects, NGO's, and other building experts from Buffalo. So far, with the help of community partners and my thesis committee, I have created scenarios about the existing systemic issues of deferred building maintenance and the culture of demolition in Buffalo, which causes a range of detrimental social and environmental impacts. At the event, I pitched to have a large workshop where we would use "Vision Planning" to co-create imagined future alternatives. The presentation engaged the audience through their own mini visioning session, followed by a critique of conventional planning processes and modes of representation. Due to COVID-19, I have revised my methods from a workshop to surveys and conference calls, instead, for each scenario. The novel will tell two stories: 1) the current reality and 2) the desired vision state, as defined by Fruit Belt residents.” 

What are your thoughts on the other proposals presented at the competition?
“The other projects were unique, fascinating, and inspiring. One group pitched an immersive theatrical performance where they welcomed the audience, as climate refugees, to their first day on Mars. The pitch provoked thoughts about neoliberalism and the ethics of the corporate space to Mars in light of climate change. Another pitch questioned clothing choices such as professionalism and media portrayals of fashion, countering with the idea that clothing is another form of home, and asserting that if we all dressed for comfort and security, our clothes would look very different. Overall, the other pitches expanded my understanding of the role of art and communication across a variety of disciplines.”