A new studio course currently being offered this fall brings together students from Virginia Tech and Hollins University with Roanoke city officials and leaders. The course is the combined effort of Margaret Cowell, Assistant Professor for the Urban Affairs and Planning department at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, and Jon Bohland, Associate Professor and Director of International Studies at Hollins University.

The studio course is called Small Cities, Resilience, and Global Change (Small Cities Studio, Hollins). The purpose of the course is to bring together students from all majors and disciplines from both universities and provide them with a real-world experience of working as consultants with community groups.

This semester, the studio partnered with CoLab and CityWorks (X)po in Roanoke, Virginia. The primary focus of the course is to look at small cities, which Cowell loosely defines as cities of about 250,000 people or less. Small cities are of particular interest because little research has been done in the planning and policy fields in these smaller areas.

“It’s an under-studied realm,” Cowell noted. “It provides us with an opportunity to scale-up and provide best practices and ideas for other cities that could benefit from what we’ve found.”

Roanoke provided the perfect case study as it is in close proximity to both universities and Bohland had preexisting relationships with Roanoke influencers including the Director of CoLab and CityWorks (X)po, Ariel Lev.

“Our first thought was to enlist a partner that was flexible and who would embrace the fact that this was going to be a learning process. CoLab was a great fit,” Bohland said.

Making an Impact in Roanoke

Over the course of the semester, students worked with CoLab, Roanoke community leaders, and policy makers to gain insight on development that has taken place throughout the city’s history. They have paid special attention to how these projects have changed the nature and scale of collaborations in the city. Students are also looking at the branding and place-making strategies the city has implemented over time.

Students addressed these research areas by working in three separate teams. The first team was tasked with constructing a timeline of development in Roanoke that draws on data from interviews, surveys, and archival research they have conducted. The second team was charged with mapping that development over time and creating a visualization of development projects in Roanoke. The third team reviewed and analyzed Roanoke’s branding/place-marketing strategy.

Students mingle with local stakeholders, community groups, university partners and neighborhood residents. Photo courtesy of Maggie Cowell.

At the end of the semester, the students present their findings and recommendations to their client and interested stakeholders and community groups. This semester’s class just completed their final presentations at the Grandin CoLab. A large group of local stakeholders, community groups, university partners, and neighborhood residents were in attendance.

Students work with these community leaders one-on-one and are making a real contribution to how small cities operate by providing evidence for what best practices and strategies are most effective. They also learn how to manage projects of this scale in a real-world situation.

Looking Ahead – Plans for the next studio and bigger plans for the future

Cowell and Bohland have received positive feedback from students and clients involved in this pilot studio and plan to offer it again next fall.

A longer-term goal for their work is to create a living lab in Roanoke where there will be a multitude of such courses offered in many different disciplines and available to students at any time.

“Roanoke is a place where everyone is enthusiastic about Roanoke and you can get in touch with everyone—even the city manager,” Bohland said. “That kind of access you just can’t get anymore. It gives our students a lot of great experiences. ”

Cowell and Bohland both expressed their appreciation for the support the course received from SPIA Director Anne M. Khademian and Hollins University President Nancy Oliver Gray.