Transforming communities

U research finds that well-designed transportation projects can help entire community

By Megan Tsai

Just a decade ago, visitors to the East St. Louis, Illinois, neighborhood of Emerson Park were greeted by vacant homes, broken streetlights, and a 25 percent unemployment rate. The suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, was a classic example of urban decline. Once a thriving area, the neighborhood gradually lost population and tax base as factories and businesses moved elsewhere, leaving behind abandoned buildings and industrial pollution.

Today, large pockets of the once-dilapidated neighborhood have been successfully redeveloped. Many area residents now live in one of the 300 new low- and moderate-income housing units, including the first private housing development built in three decades. Children enjoy the neighborhood's new playground, and grown-ups have an affordable way to travel to jobs in the city.

The changes are a result of Emerson Park's new light-rail transit station and some highly involved community members. When initial plans for a light-rail extension bypassed the neighborhood, the community spoke up. They advocated for a station in their neighborhood and won. The new Emerson Park station and the surrounding area have become the hub of the neighborhood's redevelopment success.

More than transportation

Why do some projects, like the Emerson Park station, do more than just increase mobility? And how can other transportation projects create similar benefits such as promoting economic growth, improving health, protecting the environment, creating great places, increasing civic participation, and making communities safer? Those questions are exactly what an interdisciplinary group of researchers set out to tackle in "Moving Communities Forward," a research project requested by the U.S. Congress and conducted by the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) at the University of Minnesota for the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

"When we conceptualized the study Congress called for, we took the approach that good design requires the input of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines," says CTS director Robert Johns. "We wanted to make sure our research reflected this same principle, so we selected an interdisciplinary group of talented researchers. This allowed us to capture the full spectrum of design perspectives."

Researchers in landscape architecture, geography, urban planning, architecture, and civil engineering crisscrossed the country looking at a unique group of transportation case studies