Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Connecting Students and Neighborhood Master Planning

Student Involvement

The neighborhood master planning process offers many opportunities for student involvement.  Complementarily, liberal arts students would have much to offer the design process.  Urban Sociology students at Calvin College have been intimately involved as a local neighborhood association, Fuller Area Neighbors (FAN), sought to redesign their neighborhood.  A crucial component of Area Specific Plans is the ability to demonstrate a good familiarity and understanding of the neighborhood context.  The sociology students provided invaluable assistance as neighborhood researchers.  They conducted open interviews, analyzed census tract data, implemented GIS software results, and administered surveys.  As an example of their work, they produced the following bar graph and pie chart concerning the Fuller Area:


How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?

The type of research the sociology students provided for the board of FAN proved to be very enlightening and useful.  The research allowed leaders to better understand the nature of their neighborhood and what residents desired. 

Beyond that, for Area Specific Plans to be implemented there has to be serious consideration of the economic implications for the neighborhood.  With that in mind, the same semester that the sociology students were working with FAN, a Calvin College student majoring in economics conducted a study to assess how the Area Specific Plan might affect the businesses in the neighborhood – both potential benefits and potential downsides.  A vital component of New Urbanism is the idea that neighborhoods should be mixed use places where residents could walk to businesses.  With that in mind, the student administered a survey.  A couple of questions from the survey are excerpted below:


  1. On a scale of 1 to 5, how much shopping do you do at the businesses in the neighborhood?

(1 = Most, 5 = None)

  1. Please rate the following factors on a scale of 1 to 5 according to their importance in your decision of where to shop (1 = Very important to my decision of where to shop, 5 = Not important to my decision at all).
    1. _____ Price
    2. _____ Service
    3. _____ Friendship with owners/workers
    4. _____ Integrity/honesty of company
    5. _____ Location
    6. _____ Service activity of company in neighborhood

The student’s research results indicated that very few neighborhood residents shopped locally.  It proved to be a good opportunity to impress upon business owners how New Urbanist design might be in their best economic interest.  The work conducted by these students over the course of the semester provided the residents and businesses of FAN a much richer understanding of their neighborhood and, subsequently, a better sense of how they might move forward with a redesign process.
In addition to the work previously accomplished by sociology and economic students, there remain numerous opportunities for other students to be involved in Area Specific Plans.  The following is in no way exhaustive.

Architecture students:  An important part of the neighborhood redesign process is envisioning the possibilities.  Architecture students could offer renderings of possible redesigns of the neighborhood during the charrettes.  Their drawings could be a crucial component of the Area Specific Plan.

Social Work students:  The visioning meetings with the SWOT analysis and dot voting would be practical opportunities to understand nonprofit organizations and the processes involved.  These students could be intimately involved in helping to organize, plan, and facilitate these meetings.

History students:  A major component of neighborhood redesign is authenticity.  That is, a frequently articulated goal within the City of Grand Rapids Master Plan is the value of context and compatibility.  The Master Plan states:  “The protection of historically and architecturally significant buildings is also an important part of maintaining visual character and a sense of continuity with the city’s heritage” (p. 17).  History students could be utilized to research the history of the neighborhood and present findings to stakeholders. 


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