Students for Design Activism

Lifeworks Sensory Garden

LWPlanFINALRev1SmallCross-posted from Humphrey School News, November/December.

Students for Design Activism member and 2012-2013 Co-Chair Michael Richardson, along with with three other College of Design students Coal Dorius, Elizabeth Hixson and Stefano Ascari, collaborated this past fall with Lifeworks, a nonprofit organization serving people with disabilities, to design a sensory garden at Lifeworks’ new Apple Valley location.

The intent of the project was to provide a space that encourages interaction, appreciation, and awareness of both natural and man-made materials. The design features a musical fence, an accessible water feature, and plantings that engage the senses. Construction was completed last fall.

Although this was not an official SDA project, Mike is an avid member of SDA and we are all excited to see it happen!

Watershed Film Screening – Next Spring


Students for Design Activism is pleased to announce that we will be hosting a screening of the film Watershed next April. This event will be in partnership with theDepartment of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota, and will feature a panel of professionals dealing with watershed issues in the Midwest. We also plan to showcase some student work that relates to water.

More details to come over the summer.



A Proposal for Greenroofs Along the Central Light Rail

Students for Design Activism is working on a proposal to construct small-scale vegetated roofs on the passenger shelters located at the Light Rail Transit stations currently under construction in the Twin Cities.

We believe that the implementation of these greenroofs would be immensely beneficial for the Twin Cities. Not only would the greenroofs provide environmental benefits to the city by capturing stormwater, improving air quality and reducing the urban heat island effect, but they would also help to beautify the LRT stations and enhance the branding of the Central Corridor as a the “Green” line. The visible nature of these improvements would also help competitively place the Twin Cities on the forefront of embracing sustainable urban development.


Greenroofs have been proven to be one of the most beneficial and most easily implemented forms of sustainable infrastructure. They are also commonly recognized in the public sphere as a sustainable practice. By bringing greenroofs down to a pedestrian level and scale, we will have an opportunity to attract and educate the public on the benefits of sustainable infrastructure.

The benefits of greenroofs are many and diverse. From an ecological standpoint, they provide an opportunity to collect stormwater that would normally enter into the city’s stormwater collection system. They also reduce the surface area that absorbs heat, resulting in a decrease in the urban heat island effect. Studies have shown that greenroofs can also mitigate air pollution and help produce a return on investment for their construction when the particle (mono-nitrogen oxide) uptake capacity of plants is valued according to the value of emission reduction credits for cap and trade programs. Greenroofs have been shown to demonstrate many indirect social benefits as well, including job creation, aesthetics and well-being, social cohesion and food security (read more here).

The shelter greenroofs would be a branding effort. Their unique nature will help create a sense of “place” at the light rail stations, which in turn will attract riders to the LRT system.
SDA is researching the feasibility and potential benefits of these greenroofs. In order to propel the project forward, it is necessary to quantify as many aspects of the project as is reasonably possible and conduct a preliminary cost/benefit analysis.

We have already shared these ideas and received feedback and strong support from several organizations, professionals and city employees involved with the Light Rail Transit project, including the Central Corridor Design Center, Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, City of Saint Paul Gardening Program and the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Architecture Department.

SDA is willing to play whatever role is possible and appropriate in this project, from design planning to project management, and on any scale–be it one experimental rooftop or implementation along the entire Light Rail Transit lines.


Grace Lutheran Church Community Charrette

In October 2011, Students for Design Activism participated in a charrette with Grace University Lutheran Church, located on the University of Minnesota’s campus (actually down the street from Rapson Hall, SDA’s headquarters). Students brainstormed with Pastors Dan and Mary Garnaas-Halvorson, church members and professionals from Damon Farber Associates, a local Landscape Architecture Firm. Their ideas will potentially be incorporated into a new outdoor space next to the church.


Fantastic Urban Futures helped to spotlight Three Ring Gardens, bringing its presence to the awareness of city officials and other neighborhood organizations while garnering further support.  The event helped  clarify the importance of the project within the neighborhood and the region.  Excitement was high for this nationally unique project in the heart of the Twin Cities, see additional information at:

This a video clip from the Three Ring Gardens stop along the Fantastic Urban Futures Bike Tour on October 15 led by Rebar.  Anna Lawrence Bierbrauer and Miss Emily Lowery talk with a community group from Skyline Tower and folks on the Fantastic Futures tour about possibilities for two empty lots next to Gordon Parks High School.  Three Ring Gardens is a SDA proposed community greenspace along the central corridor.  The space could be used to extend Gordon Parks High School’s urban agriculture program and a community gathering space for residents of Skyline Tower and the surrounding area.


The Starling Project (named for a bird that takes over abandoned nests) is lead by a group of Humphrey students in collaboration with regional planners, urban designers, landscape architects, architects, policy makers, neighborhood organizations, graphic designers, and Students for Design Activism.

The project developed in response to the heavy toll construction of the light rail is taking along the Central Corridor (which is the primary commercial corridor in St. Paul.)  The vacancy rate in storefronts is around 25% and questions loom:

What will happen to surrounding neighborhoods if that rate gets worse?

Does the process of building a light rail line destabilize communities to an extent thathamstrings the benefits once the line is completed?

What can be done to mitigate that?

In response to these questions, the Starling Project’s GOAL is to define and promote a supply of vacant storefronts on University Avenue for short-term tenants of all kinds (entrepeneurs, artists, start-ups, community groups, etc…)

These storefronts will be readily identifiable from the street by some uniform design elements and custom storefront displays will tell the story of what’s happening inside.  The Starling Project is creating a positively-branded project to address landlords’ concerns about making their spaces available to short-term tenants at below-market rents.


October 21st marked the date of the first Starling Project Charrette, where all said collaborators got together to think about how this project might come alive.  Check out the photos from that event and stay posted for further news.








Interview with Co-chair Anna Lawrence Bierbrauer




Three Ring Gardens







The idea for Three Ring Gardens began as a seed planted by students at Gordon Parks High School two years ago. While looking at a model of the future Central Corridor Light Rail the students noticed two greenspaces next to their high school. With greenspace virtually non-existent in the area, the students were excited by the new idea and asked their teachers “Are we going to have a park next to the school?” Although money to fund greenspace along the Light Rail had run dry, faculty at Gordon Parks High School have nurtured their students’ dream; Partnered with Students for Design Activism(SDA) through the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Minnesota, GPHS and its surrounding neighbors have created a vision to transform 2.5 acres of vacant land into a community greenspace with an urban agriculture and ecological education program. This dynamic park stands to benefit over 800 low-income, new immigrant residents, the largest population of at-risk students in the Twin Cities and over 32,000 residents in the direct vicinity, including local businesses. Located on University Ave and Griggs Street in St. Paul, Three Rings Gardens and its neighbors are surrounded by a major interstate, an arterial road, office buildings, and large parking lots. Upon completion, it will serve as the only true public green space in over a half-mile radius.

Responding to the needs of the GPHS administration, community stakeholders, and the student body, SDA has developed a site plan and schematic design for Three Ring Gardens, fostering an education of food production, ecology, stormwater management, and alternative energy endeavors in the everyday lives of the students. For the larger community, neighbors and students, this also becomes a place for public art, pick-up games, outdoor performances, or a simple breath of fresh air.

By focusing on education, equity, sustainability, and community development, Three Ring Gardens becomes a park unique to the region and a destination that will further strengthen the new urban fabric of the Central Corridor while re-envisioning neighborhoods in which we provide cultural, intellectual, economic and natural diversity.

Our Goals:
1. Transform existing vacant lots into vibrant, community green spaces.
2. Teach students and the community residents about urban agriculture, natural systems, and health lifestyles.
3. Foster relationships and skill sets that cultivate knowledge, dignity, and create a sense of pride in self and in place.

Making Three Ring Gardens a Reality
These vacant parcels are still on the market. In order to make Three Ring Gardens a reality, they must be purchased first. While procurement funds are required, garnering community support is equal in importance. With support from community stakeholders and the office of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Three Ring Gardens is quickly becoming a project that spurs hope and excitement on a neighborhood and regional scale.


Guerilla Gardening!

SDA took on our second project today!

A little guerilla gardening seemed like a simple way to actually get something done in the midst of our very busy schedules. Prompted by Miss Lowry, we took a look at bicycle fatalities in Minneapolis and came up with 4 possible intersections to attack. Out of all the locations that have had a high number of car-bicycle collisions in the past 5 years, these four had a boulevard or right of way that we could plant in. In order to deal circumvent issues with city maintenance, we chose to plant early spring bulbs that will emerge and bloom before seasonal maintenance starts in the spring.

Our turn out was small today but the weather was gorgeous. Miss Lowry, Amber, Derek, and myself decided to focus on one location in South Minneapolis: E 26th St and Hiawatha Ave S. Armed with a few trowels and about 50 bulbs, we did our own little bit to bring attention to an area that is problematic for cyclers and has been blighted with tragic circumstances.

Now we wait! It will be a bit of a surprise next spring to see what emerges — although the area was mostly weeds and sad-looking turf, the soil was in pretty good condition so hopefully we get some rain in the next few days and our bulbs will have a fighting chance.

At any rate, it was nice to rip ourselves away from the computer screen, feel the sunshine on our faces, and get our hands a little bit dirty. The response from people passing by was pretty encouraging as well!

Slowly but Surely

Life as a graduate student can be utterly myopic. As the panic builds about impending deadlines, as the exhaustion sets in after many late nights, and as the “work completed” pile is ambushed by second-guessing, the rest of the world seems to melt away into a gray fuzz on the periphery of our sight lines. We are all subject to this — so how do a group of overworked, stressed, idealistic graduate students make projects outside of all the requirements happen?

This is our question at hand. Not many of us have had experience on organizing a group like this from the ground up and none of us have done it while bending to the demands of graduate school. Yet, it has been done. Ordinary people have been involved in amazing projects. Forming a structure for ourself is the first step.

The idea of committees came up today in a conversation. Can we have committees led by one person with 2 or 3 support people that work as a task force to accomplish specific goals. Would this be a way to disperse some of the weight felt by officers and spread a sense of individual investment? What kind of committees do we need as Students for Design Activism? A list I am kicking around right now is:

Community-Service Projects

Urban Agriculture Projects
‘Subversive Actions’
Public Relations
Administration (?)

This is probably very basic group organizing — I am not familiar with the world. And, although, I know we all want this to be successful, I also want us to figure out what is the best model for us as a group. How can we make sure we move forward as well as all get to be involved somehow? I know we have a few people with much more experience than myself, I am excited to hear what they have to say.

Until next time, find at least 15 minutes to walk outside and enjoy the colors and textures, and shadows of fall.