In Rural Alabama, Student Architects Jump-Start a Neglected Park

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The latest Rural Studio project at Lions Park in Greensboro, Alabama, is improving amenities, including the number of well-shaded areas. (Photo: Timothy Hursley).

Greensboro is one of those sleepy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it towns found in abundance along the Black Belt, a 19-county swath across central and western Alabama that effectively serves as a textbook definition of the rural Deep South: dense swamps and rolling hills, grand antebellum mansions and crumbling cotton plantations, banana pudding and black-bottom pie, tremendous historic wealth and crippling current-day economic depression.

Serving as the seat of Hale County, one of the least populated and most impoverished of Alabama’s 67 counties, Greensboro encompasses 2.4 square miles and roughly 2,500 residents. The region’s largest city, Montgomery, is 100 miles southeast while the rowdy college town of Tuscaloosa is a 40-minute drive north on State Route 69. Unless you’re in the catfish farming industry or intimate with the work of James Agee and Walker Evans, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Greensboro.

And that’s okay — most people haven’t.

But for what Greensboro lacks in name-recognition, it makes up for in the form of a world-class park revitalization project. It’s here, at Lions Park, that Auburn University’s Rural Studio is reshaping and reinvigorating Hale County’s largest public green space, one innovative step at a time. As a result of Rural Studio’s ongoing work, Lions Park has been transformed into both a source of community pride and a bona fide destination for park-goers from across the Black Belt and beyond.

Lions Park may not put Greensboro — a town where boarded-up Main Street storefronts outnumber the ones teeming with life — on the map. It's not a silver bullet and can certainly not, by itself, reverse the economic and social ills of a rural Southern town. Constantly improving and evolving, Lions Park benefits the community in simpler, invaluable ways. It's a place to congregate and escape, reflect and run amok, work out and let loose. In a town that doesn't have much, it's very much something something good.

Main Street, downtown Greensboro, Alabama.
Main Street, downtown Greensboro, Alabama. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Bringing good design to the impoverished and the underserved

Even those unfamiliar with Greensboro or Hale County (aka “one of the most famous places on Earth that no one has heard of”) are at least marginally acquainted with Rural Studio, an off-campus and very much hands-on design/build program operated as an extension of Auburn’s College of Design, Architecture and Construction that’s been the subject of a documentary film, a handful of monographs and countless news articles published in design publications and in the mainstream press.

Situated about 10 miles down Highway 61 from Greensboro in the dot-on-the-map town of Newbern, Rural Studio was co-founded in 1993 by Dennis “D.K.” Ruth and the late, great social justice architect Samuel Mockbee. In 2001, one year after he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, Mockbee, a visionary in the truest sense, lost his battle against leukemia.

Mockbee and Ruth, who has also since passed away, founded Rural Studio with the single mission to “... simultaneously demystify modern architecture and expose architecture students to extreme poverty in their own backyard.” As Rural Studio explains, its founding philosophy “suggests that everyone, both rich or poor, deserves the benefit of good design.”

In 2000, right after Mockbee had been named a MacArthur Fellow, Time magazine published an article about Rural Studio that evokes both the inevitable Habitat for Humanity comparison and the "Redneck Taliesin South" nickname that references Frank Lloyd Wright's winter studio and architecture school in Arizona. The article closes with a brilliant quote from Mockbee — a man known for casually unleashing brilliant quotes. He explains: "Most people say we are already on the edge. But I want to jump into the dark to see what happens and where we land. It won't be fatal. We are onto something good."

Over the past 22 years, Rural Studio students have completed a whole lot of good — over 150 projects throughout Hale County as well as in neighboring Perry and Marengo counties. All projects are located within a 25-mile radius of Rural Studio’s Newbern headquarters, a grand old Victorian mansion called the Morrisette House.

Rural Studio is perhaps best known for erecting economical yet striking-looking homes, with the newer generation of homes being less idiosyncratic and salvage-heavy than the program’s 1990s output. Most notable is 20K House, a series of smartly designed, highly replicable dwellings that can be built for under $20,000, cost of land not included.

Michele's House and Idella's House, the 15th and 16th iterations of Rural Studio's ongoing $20K House project.
Michele's House and Idella's House, the 15th and 16th iterations of Rural Studio's ongoing 20K House project. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

Multiple 20K Houses go up each year; 16 iterations have been completed since the launch of the initiative in 2005. All of the abodes, largely viewed as a long-lasting and cost-comparable alternative to trailer homes, place an emphasis on the use of regionally sourced materials along with an eye toward energy-efficiency. Storm-resilience has also become a design focal point following a deadly tornado outbreak that struck western Alabama in April 2011. As recently reported by City Lab, Rural Studio hopes to soon start selling plans for three 20K Houses models so that they can provide shelter to low-income communities outside the Black Belt.

Under the leadership of Mockbee’s successor, current Rural Studio director Andrew Freear, the program’s Fifth Year thesis students (usually around 12 undergrads, split into teams of three or four) have also embarked on numerous civic, cultural and community-centric projects, both new-builds and renovations, including Antioch Baptist Church (2002), the Newbern Volunteer Fire Department (2004), the Hale County Animal Shelter (2005), the Akron Boys and Girls Club (2007) and the Safe House Black History Museum (2010) in Greensboro. This spring, Newbern’s new public library, located in a historic white-brick building that used to house the town bank, will open for business.

For the past several years, however, much of Rural Studio’s community-focused work has zeroed in on the redevelopment of Lions Park.

Game day at Lions Park
Game day at Lions Park. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

An underutilized park roars into life

Rural Studio’s involvement at Lions Park kicked off in 2006 with the redesign and reorientation of four high-traffic baseball fields. It was several years earlier that Greensboro officials first approached Freear seeking assistance to transform the aging and ill-planned park on the south side of town that was founded in the early 1970s on a 40-acre parcel once home to a failed industrial complex.

At the time, Rural Studio was unable to commit to such an undertaking. After all, Rural Studio’s energy was, at the time, largely dedicated to the resurrection of another park – the long-shuttered Perry Lakes Park in Perry County. It was at this park that, from 2002 through 2005, Rural Studio students designed and built a new pavilion, public bathrooms, a covered bridge and one mighty impressive birding tower built from the remnants of a fire tower.

Still, Freear saw potential in Lions Parks, a property co-owned by the Lions Club, the city of Greensboro and Hale County. Together with the Greensboro Baseball Association and the Riding Club, these three entities again approached in 2004 Rural Studio to develop a strategic plan to revive the park. At the start of the following academic year, that plan began to take shape.

Alabama native Alex Henderson, a former Rural Studio student who now serves a third year instructor, describes the fruition of the Lions Park project as being a “great example of how Rural Studio is seen as a resource in the community.”

As a student, Henderson first contributed to the Lions Park revitalization project during what could be called its eighth phase in 2011-2012. Almost every consecutive academic year since 2006, there’s been a distinct new project at the park, sometimes two.

Following the inaugural baseball fields initiative, there were two simultaneous projects in 2006-2007: Lions Park Surfaces (an impossible-to-miss entry gate in yellow-painted steel along with pathway work) and Lions Park Restrooms (new facilities to replace the vandalized old ones complete with a rainwater catchment system that helps to flush the toilets).

In 2008-2009, there were again two projects at Lions Park including a skate park made possible in part by a $25,000 grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation. The skate park is Lion Park’s second most visited attraction behind the baseball fields, given that it’s one of the only, if not the only, skateboarding parks in the entire region.

the skate park at Lions Park
Completed in 2009, the skate park at Lions Park remains a popular draw for the Vans crowd. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

Separately, another team developed a curious-looking mobile concession stand that’s clad in aluminum and opens and closes (via electronic winch) like a monstrous maw.

Together, the two teams also constructed a secondary basketball court, a combination peewee football/soccer field and a grassy hangout spot called The Great Lawn.

In 2010, Rural Studio introduced Lions Park Playscape, a singular — and, important to point out, shaded — playground-cum-maze created from a couple thousand 55-gallon galvanized steel drums once used to transport mint oil. Explains Rural Studio: “... a variety of running, hiding, jumping, climbing, and other exploratory experiences exist to create opportunities for physical activity; however undulating ground surfaces, sound tubes, and sensory rooms are hidden throughout the maze to heighten discovery and create opportunities for mental stimulation and imagination.”

The following year’s project was Lions Park Hub, a multipurpose sheltered area for the underutilized southwest side of the park that has yet to be realized.

Lions Park playground
Built from recycled steel drums, the Lions Park Playscape is a creative reimagining of the traditional playground. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

A shift from architectural showstoppers to “in-between areas”

In 2012, Rural Studio’s citizen architects doubled up again for two distinct Lions Park projects.

The first, Lions Park Scout Hut, is just that — a handsome new home for the local Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops that have long served as environmental stewards of the park. The log cabin-inspired facility is equipped with restrooms, storage areas, woodstove and a kitchen that’s sizable enough to handle the Scout’s annual catfish fry fundraiser. As noted by Architectural Record, “the hut's dimensions were determined largely by the space required to house two travel trailers and the imperative to accommodate an elevated track for the Pinewood Derby — the legendary Cub Scouts model car race. Pack 13 wanted the longest one they could have: 48 feet.”

In tandem with the Scout Hut, the second thesis team — Alex Henderson along with Jessica Cain, Mary Melissa Yohn and Benjamin Johnson – embarked on the Lions Park Landscape project. Although this project did not yield razzle-dazzle restrooms, crowd-drawing concrete half-pipes or a Tom Kundig-esque atelier, it served as a vital — and much needed – step in the transformation of Lions Park: it visually ties everything together.

As explained by Henderson, Lions Park’s turnaround has progressed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. Certain areas were lavished with a fair amount of attention while other areas — the “in-between areas” as Henderson calls them — were left largely untouched. The balance was off-kilter. Lions Parks, home to several new eye-catching structures that had attracted the attention of the global architecture community, was still rough around the edges.

Greensboro troops convene at the end all be all of Boy Scout Huts.
Greensboro troops convene at the end all be all of Boy Scout Huts. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

“The goal was to give all of the park’s empty spaces a name and character,” says Henderson. “We were trying to give all of the park attention.”

To beautify the areas around the new sports facilities and make the park a more appealing place to simply relax and unwind, Henderson and his peers planted a large number (about 170) and a wide variety of trees — white oak, eastern redbud, bald cypress, red maple, flowering dogwood and others. The team also created a quartet of rain gardens to better manage stormwater runoff while tackling assorted landscaping odd-and-ends that tie disparate sections of the park together into a cohesive whole. Additionally, the team devised a long-term maintenance plan, not just for the park’s landscaped elements but for infrastructure as well.

The maintenance conversation is still an on-going one that centers around the central question: how can a city, a city that’s modest in both size and affluence like Greensboro, successfully use limited resources to maintain a park for the long-haul?

As Henderson points out, “you don’t want to build something that can’t be taken care of.”

One solution now underway is the transition from a joint-ownership model towards a single ownership scenario in which the city of Greensboro would main control over the park. A first-ever parks and recreation board consisting of a council of appointees would be formed to direct management and oversee a small annual budget.

For now, Lions Park, along with a few pocket parks scattered around town, are maintained by the city road crew — the same folks responsible for fixing potholes, picking up litter and mowing the lawn in front of the county courthouse. It’s a big job for these city employees, whom Henderson refers to as the “unsung community heroes.” In the future, a small maintenance team would be assembled to exclusively attend to Greensboro parks to ensure that they receive the attention they need.

Lions Park Fitness, a 2013 project that emphasizes individual fitness instead over team sports.
Lions Park Fitness, a 2013 project that emphasizes individual fitness instead over team sports. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

Shady business

Like the rest of the Black Belt, Hale County positively boils during the summer months. With sky-high dew points and average temperatures hovering around the low-90s, life outdoors can best be described as sticky, soupy and downright distressing. (A spray bottle, access to a local swimming hole and an unlimited supply of sweet tea certainly helps). Even current Fifth Year team member and Birmingham native Callie Eitzen refers to summertime in west-central Alabama as being completely unbearable. “It’s the humidity that really kills you,” she says.

The sultry summertime heat — and how to beat it is — is the primary focus of this year's Rural Studio project at Lions Park, a project that aims to make the park a welcoming place to visit on even the most oppressive, hell-no-I’m-not-stepping-beyond-my-screened-in-porch kind of days.

This year’s Fifth Year team — Eitzen, Julia Long, Alex Therrien and Daniel Toner — are tasked with the formidable mission to create new shaded areas throughout the park.

While Lions Park boasts a little over 2.5 acres of forested land populated by towering possum oak, pin oak and loblolly pine, many park-goers aren’t exactly keen on venturing into the buggy woods in the middle of July just so they can escape from the glaring sun. (But in the event that they do, a thick overgrowth of poison ivy and Chinese privet has been cleared away). The team aims to bring shade out of the forest to the park’s main walking trails — extending, it as Eitzen puts it — in an effort to create places of refuge and new “opportunities for rest, relaxation and gathering.”

The team’s overall scope, however, is services project-based. It revolves around, to quote Henderson, “fixing things up that need a little help,” while providing additional amenities such as benches, bathroom gates, water fountains, trash cans, swings and a storage shed for the Greensboro Baseball Association. A permanent foundation for the mobile concession stand is also on the to-do list.

Thanks to the work of this year's Rural Studio team, this mobile concession stand will get a permanent foundation.
Thanks to the work of this year's Rural Studio team, this mobile concession stand will get a permanent foundation. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

As Eitzen notes, “it’s the question of how can we add improvements?” that pushes her team’s ongoing work forward. “We don’t just to add something to add something.”

But creating shade, described as Henderson as being “the main missing amenity,” is priority number one.

While the trees planted by the previous team play into the project, there’s an issue of timing. The young trees add endless leafy appeal but aren’t exactly shade-baring at this point – it will require another 15 to 20 years of growth before ducking under them in hot weather becomes a reality. And, so, as a more immediate fix, Eitzen and her teammates are at work devising a system of shading structures that mimic the dappled light and shadow effect naturally created by trees.

Following a series of shade studies conducted in the park that give insight as to how sunlight impacts certain target areas of the park during certain times of the day, the team is currently at work designing three structures of various size that would incorporate, in the words of Eitzen, a “two-layer linear shade member system.”

Eitzen points out the trio of shadow-projecting structures would be integrated among the park’s juvenile trees which will develop around them, not isolated from it, to create what the project description describes as a “layered canopy that will change over time and throughout the seasons.”

“We want to make sure it’s not just a rigid, static darkness," explains Henderson, "but a moving, interactive shadow based on the movement of the sun throughout the day."

The pee-wee football field at Lions Park, and, beyond that, the Playscape and the forest.
The pee-wee football field at Lions Park, and, beyond that, the Playscape and the forest. (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

Experimental pie shops, bamboo bikes and a small town bursting with good

Outside of Lions Park, Eitzen’s classmates are busy at work: There’s two additional Fifth Year projects including the 17th iteration of the 20K House (the fifth iteration of the two-bedroom model) as well as a fabrication pavilion to be built on Rural Studio's campus. Third Year students are hard at work building a 560-square-foot farm storehouse, also at Rural Studio HQ in Newbern.

As Henderson points out, Rural Studio isn’t exclusively composed of current Auburn students and faculty along with support staff. The extended Rural Studio family includes the "leftovers:" former students who stay on board after graduation, as volunteers, to finish off any projects that haven't been completed within the tight confines of the academic year.

Sometimes, they hang around longer. In the case of Henderson, he stuck around to teach. “If anything, we proved to ourselves that we can take on these kind of projects,” says Henderson of his experience as a student at Lions Park.

On a project basis, Rural Studio will continue to return to Lions Park for the foreseeable future. It’s unfair to herald the revitalized park as Rural Studio’s crown jewel given that the program's output, as a whole, is so diverse, potent. Still, it’s a jewel — a diamond in the rough that’s been treated to a vigorous yet thoughtful dusting off over the past decade.

As for Greensboro, the heart of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states, it too has been dusted off. Once upon a time, the only thing worth detouring — or even slowing down — for was the town’s modest historic district. Now, Rural Studio has made its rubberneck-inducing architectural mark within city limits: the Greensboro Boys and Girls Club, the Hale County Animal Shelter, the Safe House Museum, Music Man House and others. While you won’t find huge fleets of looky-loos cruising through town, there’s been enough outside traffic to warrant a New York Times travel piece.

Others, inspired by the vision of Samuel Mockbee, have followed in Rural Studio’s design-for-good footsteps. In a renovated pool hall on Main Street, you’ll find PieLab, a bakery-cum-design studio-cum-community hub operated by Project M, an international design collective founded in 2003 by German-born graphic designer John Bielenberg. In 2010, PieLab was nominated for a James Beard Award in the interior design category.

Just down the street, you’ll find the (Rural Studio-designed) offices of HERO (Hale Empowerment & Revitalization Organization), a multifaceted community development nonprofit that, with creative support from Project M, has launched a bustling bamboo bike-making business. Pam Dorr, an erstwhile Victoria’s Secret underwear designer from San Francisco who came to Greensboro on what was to be a short visit and never left, serves as the executive director of HERO and is one of Greenboro's most active — and visible — agents of change.

For a sleepy little Black Belt town that’s long struggled to find its footing, it's obvious that there's a disproportionate amount of impassioned optimism packed within 2.4 square miles. And unlike an evening softball game at Lions Park where one team inevitably walks away defeated, everyone wins in the design-driven revitalization of Greensboro, Alabama.

Batter up.