Q&A: All about the Urban Transitions Studio

Periodically, Western Today is reaching out to Western Washington University faculty and staff to get their expertise on topics of interest to the community. Tentatively, we're calling this Western Today Q&A, but if you have a better idea, please let us know in the comments or send us a note.

For today's question, we reached out to Nicholas Zaferatos, an associate professor of environmental studies:

Western Today: Your Urban Transitions Studio project is doing fascinating research working with local officials and the community to look at urban planning in Bellingham in fresh, new ways. What were the origins of this project, and what have been some of the key takeaways of its efforts over the last few years?

Nicholas Zaferatos: The Urban Transitions Studio project was formally launched in 2009 through an agreement between WWU's urban planning program, the City of Bellingham and Sustainable Connections. Depending on our past projects, the program has also engaged other partners, including the Port of Bellingham, Whatcom Transit and neighborhood associations. The goal of UTS is to focus student coursework on a planning topic of interest and priority to the community. Students gain from in-depth application of their coursework into a real-life planning scenario, while at the same time, functioning as a liaison between the community and city staff.

The current project conceives of approaches for introducing "urban infill" and mixed-use development in the south Sunnyland neighborhood, an area of the city that has been largely devoted to single use, light industrial activities. Click here to watch the students' recent presentation of this project at Bellingham City Hall. The neighborhood has been transitioning into a service and retail district, and the study proposes additional land uses, including residential uses, while retaining and expanding job-oriented activities. Some of the "big ideas" proposed by our students include the addition of over 800 new residential units to provide a diversity of housing options that address unmet housing needs in the city, in close walking proximity to the downtown. These housing alternatives include townhouse development that meets the city's preference for single family housing yet at a high density of 30-40 units per acre; micro housing that provides market based affordable housing alternatives, and transitional housing to support the needs of Bellingham's homeless population.

Past UTS projects include studies for urban infill along Samish Way and the Fountain District, which then led to the city's adoption of the Samish and Fountain District Urban Village Plans, as well as studies of waterfront development incorporating a university presence, a plan for establishing a series of homeless settlement communities as transitional and temporary housing solutions, the redevelopment of downtown's alley spaces, and a plan for urban infill along downtown's State Street.

The program has the potential to further expand. I envision the future of the UTS program including the engagement of many more students and classes from throughout the university community. Imagine a CBE class examining the market feasibility of micro housing, art classes exploring the integration of urban public art as an element of community development, a social anthropology class that examines client community needs, an environmental science class that develops habitat restoration alternatives for Whatcom Creek. The list of potential student and faculty participants in UTS is really endless!