Multidisciplinary Team Wins AECOM’s Urban SOS Competition

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At AIA New York’s Center for Architecture, finalists for a student design competition took on a new audience: the public. Urban SOS, a student competition sponsored by AECOM and hosted by AIA NY, offered the chance for three remaining teams to present their design solutions in front of judges, the president of AECOM, and the curious residents of NYC. Three teams who focused on vastly different places — a slum in Nairobi, Kenya; a Mexican-American border site near Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas; and a slum in Bogotá, Colombia — waited impatiently to take the stage and give their final pitch. An energy filled the room as the audience crammed in the space, all of whom knew what was at stake for the victor: $5,000 and $25,000 towards the realization of the work. Unslumming Kibera, a multifaceted proposal for Kibera in Nairobi was awarded the grand prize.

Urban SOS: An Open Ideas Student Competition is AECOM’s seventh annual student competition aimed at fostering conceptual thinking around important global themes. The charge to the students is to be as creative and diverse with the make-up of their teams, ideas, and processes in order to formulate truly original projects. This year’s theme, Frontiers, aims at finding today’s borders, be they economic, social, cultural, physical or any combination. Students choose their own site through a framework of self-guiding principles of what constitutes a “border” and then begin a site-specific investigation. The investigation (and the proposal) would then be judged against the ethos set forth by each team.

In keeping with AECOM’s belief that “urban challenges are best met when multiple disciplines are at the table,” Unslumming Kibera took home the Moleskin trophy (oh, and $5,000). The four students came from a wide range of backgrounds and coalesced to present a robust, energetic, well-researched proposal to create a new type of multi-use community space in Kibera, which has a population of more than one million. Kibera, which is covered in detail in this excellent article from The Economist, is an “informal, neglected” settlement, but a place that is also full of life and provides a vital economic function in Nairobi. It’s home to many of the low-income workers (often migrants) who provide services to Nairobi’s burgeoning middle class. But, within this place, there’s no legal system of land rights. There’s also no legal electrical or sanitation system. The goals of the design team were to examine how a site in Kibera could “provide flood protection, enhance commercial activity, maximize constructed open space, and reuse ‘waste’ materials.”

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The students had met while interning in Kibera the previous summer and teamed up at the announcement of AECOM’s student competition. Team members include design MBA student Adam Broidy (California College of the Arts), landscape architecture student Jack Campbell Clause (Leeds Metropolitan University), development studies student Jamilla Harper (University of Nairobi) and urban planning student April Schneider (University of Illinois Chicago). The group had clearly worked hard on their presentation, a succinct and concise narrative of Kibera’s conditions and first-hand photo documentation of the students engaged in the community.

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Donna Walcavage, FASLA, principal, design planning, AECOM and one of the judges, reiterated the AECOM mission and how it was met by the successful team. “The finalists looked at how best to engage very complex problems and come up with a dynamic process in terms of urban solutions.” Adding, “their proposal is extremely community-based. They hit all of the essentials of cities: community, economic, and social exchange.” Bill Hanway, executive vice president, AECOM, said in a statement that “Unslumming Kibera best illustrated a solution driven from the team’s personal experience in that community. The heart of an informal community, no matter how small, becomes the inspirational driver for change.”

The work of the other two finalists is also worth exploring. Green Terraces, in its physical essence, is a low-tech terrace and house system to be built and set into the irregular landscape of the Bogotán slumscape. Its guiding purposes however, are many. The two Colombian students, Guillermo Umana (Macquarie University) and Juan Camilo Pinzon (Universidad de los Andes), tackled the devastating and endemic issues of their home country: poverty, displacement and landslides, which made for a monumental design effort. The team succeeded with their analysis of the site and the conditions that hold weight on the border of Ciudad Boliviar and Socha. An animation of the analysis was certainly a nice touch as the students demonstrated a command of presentation technology. However, the framework of their problem may have been too ambitious.

The structure proposed didn’t address all of the issues presented by the students. There was an ambiguity in the house-terrace system that was emphasized in the ambiguity of the model and section. Much of the presentation focused on the hazards of landslides and the unemployment factor of the area, but the proposal made only timid strides at correcting these issues. One juror explained her hesitation about the hillside structure. “Inexpensive housing is not always a good idea…It’s like building an inexpensive bridge.”

Sara Navrady’s (Delft University of Technology) focus was on the Mexican border community of Hueço Bolson between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The Rio Bravo, the physical border between the two towns, suffers from problems common all over the world. Industrialization of the river has caused severe ecological and environmental damage, not to mention the sharp decline of the region’s population. Navrady’s solution embraces one of the area’s most pressing problems: sewage. The construction of wetlands as a complement to the Rio Bravo, would engage two of the critical issues — water quality and open space availability. The heart of the proposal is a constructed wetlands that would have the capacity to treat the dwindling water resource, which are predicted to be in extreme shortage in 2015. The wetland would also provide a public amenity worthy of attracting a greater population of residents.

Sewage Ecologies/Economies was also a strong proposal. Navrady had previous experience with the site but essentially drafted the proposal in a short time frame leading up to the submission by herself. The presentation was masterfully crafted and crystal clear. Her solution was a precise declaration of objectives and a linear narrative of phasing. One juror commented on its clarity. She “wished our politicians could speak to problems the way Sara does.” However, in the end, as diverse the solution and valiant the effort was, Sewage Ecologies/Economies was a team of one.

The jury included Bill Hanway, executive vice president, buildings places, AECOM; Donna Walcavage and Chris Choa, principals, design planning, AECOM; Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director at the Center for Architecture; Galia Solomonoff, founder and creative director, Solomonoff Architecture Studio and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and Alexandra Hardiman, director of mobile products at The New York Times.

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY) and writer for The Architect’s Newspaper.

Image credits: (1-2) Unslumming Kibera, (3) Winners / Stacy Sideris

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