Teens Developing Urban Design Skills While Improving Their Neighborhood

A group of teens in the Austin area is learning how architects and engineers work in an effort to improve their community.

Along Chicago Avenue, the students are working together to renovate their neighborhood through urban design.

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Keishjuan Owens, 22, is a program manager intern with Territory, a youth driven nonprofit teaching students urban design. He’s working with teenagers to design elements aimed at uplifting the Austin community.

“They actually get the experience to understand that this is real life and we can actually make a change, and especially if there’s more of us change can happen faster,” Owens said. “So I think the sense of community is definitely starting to make them open up and respect one another and be optimistic for the future.”

The project is part of the city’s INVEST South/West initiative and 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 designing new outdoor areas on Chicago Avenue from Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue.

“So, it’s a Streetscape improvement for the roadway,” said Chris Wolf of Civic Tech Engineering. “That means replacing the sidewalk, replacing curbs, replacing the lights so it’s a new aesthetic treatment for the corridor to give it a nice modern feel and we’re working with the community to allow them to put their own touch on it.”

The vision is to transform a strip of Chicago Avenue to Soul City Corridor, a commercial strip supporting Black businesses and community engagement. Territory’s blueprints are focused on creating safe spaces for young people to host outdoor pop-up markets and fashion shows.

“I just want to see everybody in my community get together to make the community look better. I mean we are all thinking the same thing,” said Jacara Walker, a student participant.

Walker is one of the participants at Territory working to design peace circles, which are outdoor seating areas focused on encouraging unity.

“There’s a lot of people in my community suffering in silence and I feel like the peace circles will give people together,” Walker said. “Strangers or people that you might know, you can come and sit down and talk about anything you want to talk about.”

Students get hands-on experience working alongside architects and engineers. Isobel Araujo, a program manager at Territory, says the program empowers teens to be the change in their neighborhoods.

“Seeing young people find power and their voice, whether that’s presenting in a community meeting or building a design vocabulary with her peers, or just occupying space in public…,” Araujo said. “It really makes me feel proud.”

Owens says the project is more than just a makeover but an opportunity to break generational patterns in his community and focus on 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 no matter what your role is 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 culture related very much us, as people. To stop changing the negative stereotypes as Black people.”

Once the students’ proposals are finalized construction is set to begin this year.

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