Design students bridge disparate Spokane neighborhoods


By Seth Truscott, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

SPOKANE, Wash. – On one side of a knot of overpasses and railroads is Spokane’s thriving University District. On the other is the East Central neighborhood, where 63 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line and fewer than one in three own their homes.

Using smart design and technology, students at Washington State University are working to break down barriers between these adjacent areas. Their ideas could help East Central residents take advantage of education and health opportunities next door, said Steve Austin, instructor in the WSU School of Design and Construction (

“Right now, they might feel like it’s miles away, but it’s just half a mile away,” he said. “If we can improve those connections, residents benefit.”

Students in the school will present their ideas at an open house 2-6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, at the WSU Spokane South Campus Facility Court, 410 E. Spokane Falls Blvd.

Excavating layers with smart technology

“We’ve been exploring ‘ecotomes’ – transitions between two different communities,” said Taylor Weik, a landscape architecture student in the school, which also includes students in interior design and architecture. “We want to make the connection between the University District and East Central stronger: culturally, physically and educationally.”

Taylor Weik and Andrew Cristiani, students in the WSU School of Design and Construction, explore ways to bridge divides between Spokane’s East Central neighborhood and the city’s thriving University District. (Photo by Seth Truscott, WSU CAHNRS)

From above, highways seem like impassable barriers, “but we can get underneath all of this,” Austin said, using, for example, a columned railway underpass that has “some nice architecture – it could be an art experience.”

On a computer, Andrew Cristiani, a senior from Los Angeles, tabs through overlays of East Central’s streets, trails, railroads, water lines and bus routes. One desk over, Weik, a native of Renton, Wash., has cataloged the neighborhood’s residential and business  areas, restaurants, bars and grocery stores.

“A lot of people think that landscape architecture is just about flowers and shrubs,” Cristiani said. But before a landscape can be changed, its architects have to understand the many systems at play, from the pipes to the parks.

“There’s so much packed into this small area that the only way to visualize it is to break it apart, layer by layer,” Cristiani said. “We’re trying to make sense of what’s going on and, from that, strengthen our design.”

Urban lab for opportunities

The University District (, which brings together universities and businesses north of I-90 and east of Division Street, is being transformed by private, state and federal investments including WSU’s new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and a $15 million University District Gateway Bridge across the Spokane River.

A pillared East Central underpass could become a connecting pathway, said WSU instructor Steve Austin, right. His students are finding ways to link Spokane neighborhoods as a class project.

“The aim of the University District is to make connections,” said Mark Mansfield, executive director of the Spokane University District Development Association. “This includes connecting neighborhoods: downtown and the East Sprague neighborhood, among others.”

The district also connects the strengths of educational institutions with regional economic drivers like the WSU medical school, he said.

“The students’ work is an example of how the district provides an urban laboratory for new knowledge and opportunities,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing the final result.”