Jennifer Funn never imagined she would return to the site of her first job at Iverson Mall several decades after it opened its doors to the public. The mall was the first ever all-enclosed shopping center in Temple Hills, Maryland. Today, the mall’s parking lot hosts a weekly farmer’s market that has transformed a food desert—an urban neighborhood without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food—into a vibrant hub for colorful produce and community activities.
The market is one of the many success stories behind the Branch Avenue in Bloom Initiative (BAIB), which is working to reinvigorate Branch Avenue at Naylor Road and the St. Barnabas Road Commercial Corridor, and has garnered support from a wide range of partners, including the University of Maryland (UMD)’s own student-designers, thanks to Funn’s efforts as program coordinator.
With funding from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, BAIB is helping transform decades of urban sprawl into a transit-oriented, walkable downtown area that fosters community connections, commercial appeal, and healthy living.
“Even the addition of a flower pot outside our main office, which people thought would be stolen immediately or used to break our window, has proven an example for image improvement,” says Funn. BAIB’s approach is to engage the community on a personal level, encouraging its members to participate in activities that range from conferences that promote the growth of area small businesses to annual fairs that encourage the community to shop locally.
Managed by the Maryland Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), BAIB represents just one of UMD’s many efforts toward meaningful partnerships with the communities surrounding campus. The SBTDC Network is a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and the State of Maryland, and is part of the Mpowering the State initiative. With their lead center at UMD, the SBTDC has six satellite centers providing sound advice to entrepreneurs and small businesses across the state.
“Our biggest reward is to be able to witness the growth of small businesses that provide such crucial job opportunities in so many places,” says Glenna Cush, director of marketing and public relations at SBTDC.
This year, Funn and ten volunteers met with county council members to discuss plans for the area's urban farm. Set for construction on an abandoned streetscape, the farm will give community members the chance to learn how to grow their own produce. Funn reminded the council members that if left untouched, the storm water that landed on the streetscape would continue to run off into major streams and end up in the Chesapeake Bay. Her passionate testimony in front of the council earned her their support—they provided $29,000 in funding for the farm.
The urban farm is now part of UMD’s efforts to reach out to the community and make a difference. During this year’s spring semester, the Department of Art held an undergraduate course on three dimensional design in which students produced branding and promotional materials for the farm. The person behind this collaboration is Mira Azarm, a design instructor in the Department of Art and the Robert W. Deutsch Social Design Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
The semester prior to the course, Azarm sought the advice of the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) about a community project that would allow students hands-on experience with environmental design. “My aim was to create a new learning experience where the students could develop a strong connection to the community and understand the value of environmental design,” says Azarm.
NDC, which provides pro-bono planning and design services to over 1,800 community initiatives, partnered with BAIB to acquire occupancy permits for the farmer's market and provide resources for the development of the urban farm. NDC introduced Azarm’s students to the site plans for the farm and discussed possible ideas for their designs.
They also did classroom sessions with the students where they discussed stakeholders, specific groups of people that could be attracted to the farm, and concrete concepts for the design stage. Jennifer joined the students to provide critiques of their work. “The students’ work was spectacular,” she says.
At the end of the semester, students presented their final designs to Azarm and reported to have had a wonderful experience working with a real client. For Azarm, the biggest reward was the impact she and the students had on the community. “My biggest concern is that design remain committed to social change. This project is a great example of that.” She is currently working on an application to fund the production of selected works.
“We often miss an opportunity to have a common goal,” says Funn. “It’s all about vision. Church, county, and state have come together for this urban farm.”
BAIB remains a great example of strong partnerships, community outreach, and passion. Funn’s hard work to help Branch Avenue bloom into new ways of life shows the value of the university's investment in a revitalization project that prioritizes the needs of a community for the common good.
The thumbnail image accompanying this article features the work of undergraduate Kelsey Marotta, whose designs for the farm are part of Mira Azram's selections for outstanding work.
June 30, 2014