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Students Collaborate on Cahaba Blueway Future

Students from Auburn’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture have partnered with Alabama Innovation Engine, The Nature Conservancy, and Cahaba River Society to explore the opportunities for design embedded in the Cahaba River. Labeled by the Smithsonian as one of the top biologically diverse ecologies in the United States, the Cahaba River begins near Trussville, Alabama and flows into the Alabama River at Old Cahawba, the original capitol of Alabama and a significant archaeological site. The Cahaba Blueway concept emerged during a 2011 Design Summit organized by Alabama Innovation Engine and sponsored by AIGA, the American professional organization for design. Matt Leavell, project director for Alabama Innovation Engine, advocates that the Cahaba River is far more than a blue line that runs through the state, but has the potential to be a dynamic resource that can initiate economic development throughout the state in rural and urban communities. Beginning with Architecture Professor Sheri Schumacher’s attendance at that original Design Summit, several APLA programs have partnered with the Engine to study the potential of design to help realize the Cahaba Blueway.

During the spring and the summer of 2013, students from the Environmental Design program, led by associate professor Justin Miller, explored various aspects of the proposed blueway. In the spring, students began their work by visiting existing access points and mapping them to understand the access points in the context of a larger blueway system of access points, land based trails and scenic overlooks. By the end of the spring term the students had developed a series of design proposals, improved access points, signage, and land based river activity areas along the Blueway.

As summer term began the students were led on a canoe trip down the Cahaba, with guides from the Cahaba River Society and Matt Leavell, to further the student understanding of the river and the economic and environmental opportunities along its length. The final student proposals, developed over the summer considered a range of possible scenarios, such as simple upgrades to existing access locations, river length signage systems, and river overlooks and pathways that explained the river more broadly as a watershed and ecological zone.

Following those studies, Matthew Blansit of the Landscape Architecture Program continues to explore the Cahaba Blueway project as the center of his year-long thesis investigation. Beginning in fall of 2013, Matt also initiated his study of the Cahaba with an exploratory canoe trip. Enlisting his colleagues in thesis, the MLA students canoed down the Cahaba with Paul Freeman, an aquatic biologist at The Nature Conservancy and members of the Cahaba River Society: Beth Stewart, executive director and Randy Haddock, Field Director. During their trip, the students measured species counts. In tandem with his thesis investigation, Matt is also engaged in an internship with the Alabama Innovation Engine where he is developing a set of procedures to inventory and evaluate the potential access points along the river.

This work with Alabama Innovation Engine, itself a partnership of the APLA Urban Studio and the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development demonstrates the potential in partnerships. By collaborating on a significant project such as the Cahaba Blueway, APLA is demonstrating to its students the importance of working at a large scale through partnerships and cooperation.

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