Member Highlight: Heather Davis, AIA, AMR Architects
On Community Engagement and Tactical Urbanism
Heather Davis talked by phone with Katherine Lashley, AIAAR Board representative, in November 2020 to explore her experience with community engagement.
Your interest in community development seems to be a driving influence. I am curious how this kick started for you. Was there one specific moment?
HD: Joe Stanley originally brought me along with him to a studioMAIN meeting and encouraged me to get involved, where I met James Meyer, Chris East, Jennifer Herron, Jonathan Opitz, and several others who quickly became great friends and mentors. They needed graphics for Pop Up in the Rock, a joint project between studioMAIN and Create Little Rock (the Little Rock Regional Chamber’s Young Professionals group), and Joe basically volunteered me. From there, James Meyer recruited me to join the AIA Emerging Professionals Committee, and I ended up becoming a board member of Create Little Rock. StudioMAIN started me on the path to a wide variety of community efforts.
Can you define what ‘tactical urbanism’ means to you?
HD: Basically, act quickly and inexpensively for low risk and high reward. It is a way of testing a concept in a temporary way, allowing you to bypass the red tape. An example is the first Pop Up project we did in the SoMa area. We duct-taped bike lanes and used haybales to mark a median, creating a 2-week test of the benefits related to traffic speed and pedestrian/bike safety. It is really the inverse of our typical planning process since we act first and work on the details later.
I see architecture as detailed oriented, so does that mindset get in the way?
HD: In a way it is liberating. Since work is temporary, the focus is on the big idea, and finding creative ways to demonstrate what we hope to see long term. It’s a process that allows for adjustment and iteration based on first-hand observation. The perfection can come later!
What do you see as the most successful or rewarding aspect of studioMAIN projects?
HD: Engaging with community members that live and work there, and helping them put their ideas into action. We start each PopUp project with a “Community Charette” to gather ideas and input. Our most successful PopUps have been the ones where the community was most engaged, and after our temporary PopUp demonstration, they were able to carry the ideas forward into permanent changes, such as with the bike lanes in SoMa example.
What other examples of studioMAIN projects can you share besides Pop Up?
HD: Over the years, studioMAIN has undertaken several “visioning” efforts to help kick-start, or re-focus, planning efforts around Little Rock. For example, we recently did some concept renderings of possibilities for West Riverfront Park that the City can use to create momentum for the area they had identified as needing attention. The goal was to be a spark to get momentum going and hopefully it could evolve and eventually be a real project (to be designed by a local architect / landscape architect / or engineer). Another example involved a study on parking and potential infill square footage related to locating the Tech Park in downtown Little Rock. We are able to provide data and graphics to demonstrate that downtown could support the Tech Park’s needs, and it was ultimately located on Main Street rather than a suburban location. It is awesome to be a part of something that impacts our city for years to come. We do our best and sometimes it works out.
How has studio MAIN evolved? Has the mission changed? Have the people changed?
HD: When studioMAIN was starting up in 2012, the recession was still with us and firms were slow. As young professionals, we had a lot of extra energy! It started with self-generated exhibits and events to show the public what architects do. As core members advanced, and business started booming again, we’ve pivoted toward advocacy. The core mission has always been to educate the community, advocate for good design, collaborate with allied fields, and challenge convention. The difference is how we accomplish this mission – the execution has evolved. We have continued to have involvement from a variety of professions – engineers, artists, contractors, and community members in addition to architects. While several of our core members have been around since 2012, studioMAIN has continued to attract a wide variety of people that are passionate about placemaking.
Has involvement as a volunteer with StudioMAIN influenced your career as an architect?
HD: Definitely! It has really molded my career focus. AMR has a strong interest in public space as it relates to community design, and we spend a lot of time as a firm thinking and talking about creating spaces that bring people together. The skills I’ve gained through PopUp/studioMAIN certainly have professional implications for our/my work. I’ve learned many valuable strategies for community input through PopUp and other studioMAIN projects that directly translate to our work at AMR. It’s all about how we help the client get their ideas on paper, so we (AMR) can put those ideas into practice.
What advice would you offer someone interested in getting involved?
HD: Young architects may not realize how valuable our skills can be to our community. Whether a seasoned professional or someone straight out of school, architects have value in the realm of community development. Most people will never need to hire an architect, and likely don’t fully understand what architects do. By getting out there for the benefit of the public, we are able to demonstrate the real value of design, and show that great places and spaces come in many forms. We can all benefit from thoughtful design that puts people first. Especially for studioMAIN, one can be as involved as they want to be. My advice is to find something you’re passionate about and show up with a willingness to put in some effort, and it won’t be long before you’re on a first-name basis with decision makers in our city. Little Rock is great in this way. Not only will you meet others who share your passion and can become great mentors, but you will be surprised how quickly you can truly make a difference.
If you want to get involved, reach out to Heather thru the membership directory or AMR website, or for more information on studioMain, visit http://www.studio-main.org/
Heather Davis is originally from the small town of Hatfield (pop. 410) in western Arkansas, Heather Davis earned her Masters of Architecture at Texas A&M University and Bachelor of Arts undergraduate degree in Graphic Design at Arkansas Tech University. In 2012, she began living and working in Little Rock. She immediately began volunteering with studioMAIN for their ‘tactical urbanism’ event Pop Up in the Rock, staying involved ever since.
Heather’s AIA involvement has included AIA Arkansas Emerging Professionals Committee as Assistant Associate Director and Associate Director, 2014-15, as well as organizing several convention Bikitecture tours and the recent 2020 Voices of Practice virtual panel.