CAP students help Lyons flood recovery efforts

Real world experience, town as classroom

September 4, 2014


Shortly after Rachel Koleski arrived in flood-ravaged Lyons to help with the town’s recovery efforts, she found herself lugging sandstone and pulling up warped floorboards.

“I came away with a better understanding of what housing really is and what a home really means to people,” said the University of Colorado Denver architecture student. “I learned a lot about affordable housing, town politics and working with the federal government.”

Now, nearly a year after the flood, the town is about to release the final version of its recovery plan – a product of the citizens, local officials and students from the CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning (CAP).

“We are training the next generation of architects and planners,” said Andrew Rumbach, Ph.D., assistant professor of Planning and Design (below), and one of the leaders of the effort.  “Next Thursday the final recovery plan will be released and I’m very proud that our students were able to contribute to it in meaningful ways.”

They are all part of Resilient Colorado, a program created in response to the 2013 floods which devastated entire cities and towns across the state. The professors and students chose to focus specifically on Lyons which was in nearby Boulder County and suffered an estimated $50 million in damage. More than 100 homes were destroyed.

CAP students were dispatched first as volunteers to help extricate the town from mud and downed trees. Then Rumbach and Carrie Makarewicz, Ph.D., assistant professor of planning and design, created academic courses allowing students to earn credit by working in specific areas of flood recovery.

They helped visualize new housing developments, identify meaningful methods for engaging and recording public input, design new buildings and restore landscapes.

Their courses required them to work closely with town residents and officials, win over skeptics and help with a variety of initiatives like the upcoming recovery plan.

“The people of Lyons embraced us from the start, they took a chance on us,” said 29-year-old Koleski. “This was probably the best learning experience I’ve had in college.”

Fellow CAP student Jenny McGinnis, 25, agreed.

“My focus here has been public engagement, getting residents involved in the projects,” she said. “It’s extremely fulfilling when you can work on a real world problem and not just take part in an exercise.”

The scale of the destruction was sometimes overwhelming.

“Seeing the damage was very impactful. You really wanted to help,” McGinnis said. “As a student you can feel powerless but I feel like I made a concrete difference here. On a scale of one to 10 for academic experience, this was a 10.”

The students spoke as they waited outside of Lyons Town Hall Tuesday night where they were scheduled to deliver a presentation to the local board of trustees.

They were all part of a summer course on housing development and disaster recovery and charged with creating a plan to help inform Lyons as they rebuild housing in flood damaged areas. Another four classes are scheduled for this fall focused on Lyons including Planning for Disaster and Climate Change, Architecture Studio, and Plants in Design.

The hall was packed with residents eager to see hear the recommendations.

Rumbach, an expert in disaster recovery, told the trustees that his students were not there to give them a housing recovery plan. That, he said, would only come from a “robust public engagement process.”

“But it speaks volumes that the town leadership has allowed us to work so closely on this recovery project,” he told the crowd. “We had 14 grad students work on this aspect of the project, seven architects and seven planners.”

Three of the four students taking part gave presentations on different parts of the housing recovery plan. They recommended a wide range of solutions to getting people back into their homes and gauging public opinion about housing issues, location and design. Some involved digital story-telling, small meetings and hands-on scenario planning.

“The key is getting as many people at the table as possible,” Rumbach said. “It’s a long road but one that will eventually lead you down the path to recovery.”

Lyons Mayor John O’Brien, who had listened carefully throughout, pushed back from his desk and smiled.

“Congratulations to you and your class, that was an outstanding presentation,” he declared. “You all got a lot out of this experience and we got a lot out of it as well.”

Trustee Barney Dreistadt called it `mind stretching.’

After the meeting, Lyons resident and CU Denver alumni Debbie Scott told the students they had done a `fabulous’ job.

Makarewicz, who like Rumbach has only been at CAP for a year, said she was drawn to Resilient Colorado because of the real-life experience it offered students and the tangible assistance CU Denver could provide to affected communities.

“I became a planner because I care about the public good,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience going to the town’s various meetings and hearing the concerns of residents and trustees and working with such a committed group of volunteer citizens. It really brings together what we are supposed to do as professors – service, teaching and research.