: Closeups

Closeup with the Metro Design Studio

This is the true story of 14 strangers picked to live in a house, work together and design a town while finding out what happens when students step out of the classroom and step into … The Real World.

by Janet Jones Kendall (MA '01)
photos by Nancy Evelyn (BFA '84, ABJ '86)

This is the true story of 14 strangers picked to live in a house, work together and design a town while finding out what happens when students step out of the classroom and step into … The Real World.

At the Metropolitan Design Studio in Covington, instructor Randy Vinson (MLA ’94) guides landscape architecture students as they work on real-world projects.
The Real World in this case is UGA’s College of Environment & Design’s Metropolitan Design Studio—an off-campus live-and-learn facility in Covington, Ga., that allows landscape architecture students to work on real-world projects while completing their urban design coursework.

“Instead of being in the classroom dealing with hypothetical problems, we’re here in the real world dealing with real problems and coming up with real solutions for them,” says Jason Hammond from Warner Robins. “It’s an experience that we could never get in the classroom just doing the work on paper for a grade.”

The Studio evolved during three years of collaboration between CED and The Center, a non-profit group located in Covington. It is also sponsored by the Arnold Fund, a charitable trust that funds scientific and educational programs in Newton County. The goal of the Studio is to bring county residents, elected officials and the business community together with students to produce creative solutions to manage growth and development.

Since the 2003 U.S. Census indicated Newton County is the seventh fastest-growing county in the United States, environmental design instructor and Covington resident Randy Vinson (MLA ’94) decided it was the perfect place for UGA students to create smart, controlled-growth design plans.

“I can recall wanting that real-world aspect so badly when I was in school,” says Vinson.

In addition to smaller class projects, the students designed a master plan for the 2.6-square-mile city of Oxford, located just outside Covington. The main attraction is Oxford College, a satellite campus for Emory University, which is planning major expansion.

The project started with a three-day charette—a French word meaning “little cart” that’s now known as an intensive design workshop. Based on Oxford residents’ suggestions, students formulated a master plan. Although the city has not formally adopted the students’ plan, it was well-received by city officials and residents when the class presented their work to the community in late March, according to Vinson.

“In Athens, the projects have real merit but here ... we’ll actually get to see tangible results,” says Alicia Mealor of Atlanta. “It’s a whole different ballgame here. This place really works like an office. We basically work 9 to 5—and sometimes longer than that.”

While participating in the 10-week abbreviated semester program, the students live and work in the Raphael Building in Clark’s Grove, a mixed-use subdivision in Covington.

Though they are away from their homes and friends in Athens, the students don’t mind their off-campus abode. Set up with a working design studio downstairs, the Raphael Building has a New York-style apartment upstairs with hardwood floors, state-of-the-art kitchen appliances and a big-screen TV.

Living and working in the same building makes the project more intense, Hammond says. “We live, eat, dream and sleep landscape architecture.”

Spring 2006 marked the first semester of the program, which included 14 students selected from 30 who interviewed. The success of the program has Vinson and CED Dean Jack Crowley envisioning it in a larger format that could include more students.

In the coming years, Crowley plans to expand the program to a number of locations around the state—one at the coast where students can gain experience in resort design, one in the mountains for rural development design, and one in Savannah or Atlanta for urban design. The goal is to balance the theoretical and the actual so that students can experience working with real clients with real issues.

“Covington represents the high pressure growth fringe of metropolitan Atlanta, and the leadership in Newton County accommodates this by utilizing best practices. This makes a perfect environment for students to experience service learning.”