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Urban Oasis: Cultivating a Community

At the corner of North Dukeland Street and Windsor Avenue in the Panway neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, sat a vacant, overgrown 1 ⁄ 4 acre lot. In addition to being an eyesore, the site had become a place for illegal dumping, drug activity and pests. Efforts from residents to have the city clean it up went without much progress, and it seemed like the blight was there to stay. That is, until Arica Gonzalez and her neighbors decided enough was enough.

In 2015 the neighborhood banded together around a vision that started with cleaning up this little lot, but became something much larger. Arica asked her neighbors to think big - what did their community not just need but deserve. If they could dream without limitations, what would their streets look like? What opportunities would exist? What would living there feel like?

So often design begins with a list of limitations, or more delicately referred to in our industry as “requirements.” It’s a realistic necessity to take these into consideration, but starting from a place of limitation can sometimes stunt creativity. This principle is true outside of design, and Arica saw it all around her: people, communities, spaces - living only up to the potential that external limitations had drawn around them. She wanted more for her neighbors, and she was determined to show them how big and beautifully audacious a collective dream can be.

The first step took a heavy dose of audacity: acquiring the lot. After finding out who the owner was and where he lived, Arica drove to his home outside the city, knocked on the door, explained her vision and plan and asked very simply: may the neighborhood have it? To perhaps everyone’s surprise but hers, he said “yes” and agreed to donate the lot on the spot.

With possession of the property came the next very large step: visualizing the goals and dreams they had for the space. Again, thinking beyond the box was key - they didn’t just want a cleaned up lot, or a fancy new home built there or even a little pocket park. They wanted something that could bring the community together in a way that felt like it was built for and around them, rather than a space they needed to conform to.

Whatever was built there should be self-sustaining, wealth-generating and something that encouraged and fostered entrepreneurship, creativity and social responsibility. In the hierarchy of community needs, Arica was encouraging everyone to focus on the top of the pyramid: what does self-actualization look like for us?

It was not long after this that our Baltimore principle, Khanh Uong, was informed about the project and the request for architectural proposals. He met with Arica on site and listened carefully as she explained the vision for the lot.

“Off the top it felt like Design Develop was the best choice for us. Khanh was dreaming with us - he was giving recommendations, but they were building off what we were presenting. He wasn’t trying to introduce a bunch of new things, but work with us to make what we wanted feasible.”

- Arica Gonzalez, Urban Oasis Founder

Partnering with a team who listened carefully to the residents’ vision was critical for Arica, and ultimately what led her to choose Design Develop. After thinking big and identifying which ideas could be the most successful on that particular lot, the community had put together a very thought through and determined list of design requirements.

These included a space for rotating art exhibits, a place for performances and educational programming, an organic garden to help bridge their neighborhood’s food desert and to supply produce to the subterranean, high-end yet inclusive restaurant space. It should also have plenty of outdoor park space and feel open, not like an imposing, new building. At the end of the day, the lot should welcome participation and community interaction while circulating capital back into the community.

“Arica pushed me to think outside the box and beyond the standard to design a space that the community deserves. The concept was so unique and interesting, I knew we had to be involved.”

- Khanh Uong, Principle Architect at Design Develop

More than a pocket park, the Urban Oasis provides a dynamic place for community gathering and enrichment.

The design that the Baltimore team presented to Arica included all of the items on their wishlist. These conceptual designs, while created to be completely feasible, are also helpful in other ways. In this case, presenting a polished rendering to the community helped them see how their dreams and goals could truly be brought to life. It inspires and encourages the neighborhood to keep working toward the end result, and it also helps donors and local government see the value in the project.

Urban Oasis will include a subterranean farm-to-table restaurant that’s high end, yet affordable.

Urban Oasis is still in its fundraising stage, but the vision is clear, it’s attainable and it represents the community’s desires and aspirations. Arica hopes this design “helps people in the community know that they can become the developers of their space and it doesn’t have to be limited by what they’ve seen. It doesn’t always have to be other people telling us what to do with our neighborhood - you can be an active participant in that process.”

We’re incredibly excited and honored to help Urban Oasis see this design through to fruition, and to be involved in other projects they’re tackling in tandem including an alley library that’s part of the city’s “Alley Gating and Greening” initiative.

Renderings of The Alley, a community library focused on children’s programming and literacy.

If you’re interested in getting involved, becoming a donor or just want to learn more about the events the lot currently hosts and what the Panway neighborhood is dreaming up next, check out the Urban Oasis website.



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