South City

Former residents of Foote Homes re-imagine their neighborhood in urban planning summer camp

Local high school students participating in a summer camp at Knowledge Quest are improving their neighborhood by developing ways of remediating South Memphis' blight and vacant properties. 

Housed at Knowledge Quest, Design Lab Summer Intensive is a six-week, free, co-ed, day camp. Over the summer, students learned how to assess blighted properties, substandard housing, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots by using Loveland Innovations software.

“Last year we focused on innovative strategies around homelessness, and this year we chose blight,” said Knowledge Quest founder and Executive Director Marlon Foster. “I personally live and work in South Memphis, so blight and vacant lots are things that are in our faces all the time.”

Land reuse is a relevant cause to Knowledge Quest as the South Memphis-based nonprofit has transformed 30 formerly vacant lots and three abandoned buildings into the campus' Green Leaf Learning Farm, 

"So we’re big on having positive reuse strategies,” said Foster.

The 30 high school students, many of whom once lived in the former Foote Homes public housing development (itself an abandoned structure while redevelopment takes place), performed property condition surveys on 3,000-plus land parcels in ZIP 38126.

Knowledge Quest is a contracted partner to engage the youth of the former Foote Homes complex and keep them connected to the neighborhood while the 420-unit housing project is replaced with 712 units of mixed-income housing. 

Related: "South City: Housing a neighborhood in transition"

After dividing into three teams, the students selected specific properties and came up with creative solutions to bring them back to life.

“The kids had some incredible ideas, and the program helps them become innovators and doers in their neighborhoods,” said Austin Harrison, project manager with Neighborhood Preservation Inc., a Memphis-wide advocacy group that focuses on removing barriers to neighborhood revitalization.

On July 23, the students presented their ideas at the Knowledge Quest summer showcase at the W.W. Herenton Renaissance Center.

“The students did an awesome job,” said Foster. “What really impressed me was that it wasn’t just abstract ideas. They went to the level of identifying their prospective properties and building 3D prototypes. It was very encouraging stuff.”

Concepts included transforming a blighted building at 509 Walker Avenue into an arcade, converting a vacant lot at 769 S. Danny Thomas Boulevard into a community center and restaurant, and remodeling a large dilapidated property at 643 Wicks Avenue into a daycare, thrift store, grocery store and homeless shelter.

“People who stay at the shelter would also have work equity and a chance to learn tangible skills as their way of staying there,” said Harrison of the students' proposal.

The proposed designs showed an acute understanding of South Memphis' overlapping needs. The proposed daycare would be a place where the homeless could leave their children as they work or look for employment, and the grocery would address food desert concerns of the area. The thrift store would serve as a place for the homeless to acquire the things they need in order to seek employment, and toys donated to the shop could be donated to the daycare.

Foster was particularly impressed by how the high school students accommodated caring for younger children of the community into their plans.

Overall, the goal is to help young people have an active voice for change in their communities.

“One of the most exciting things about the projects for me was just the opportunity for the kids to realize that this is a career,” said Harrison. “Community development is a field that needs people. There’s not a lot of full-time community development experience and staff, and many times you hear of organizations having to bring in people from other cities to fill the voids in urban planning, design and development jobs in Memphis.”

The Design Lab Summer Intensive was funded by a donation from Urban Strategies Memphis HOPE and the Memphis Housing Authority, and partners included Neighborhood Preservation Inc. and Innovate Memphis.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.