Transforming Communities with Nature

This fall, I had the pleasure of meeting Darrel Williams in Charlotte, North Carolina. Darrel is an architect whose life’s work is focused on exploring green, sustainable, and equitable neighborhoods in his adopted home town. Darrel has pioneered innovative projects that combine green spaces with affordable housing — focusing on the potential of green architecture to improve underserved communities. He’s also an acclaimed leader in the African-American community in Charlotte and was recently featured in a book titled ‘Ten Men: Exploring the Passion and Progress of Black Men on Charlotte’s Historic West Side.’ Darrel also serves on the Nature Conservancy Board of Trustees in North Carolina.

PM: How did you get started in architecture?

DW: I stumbled into the profession. Even though I grew up around brick masons, working with my father, grandfather and uncles when I was as young as six years old, and taking several art and drafting classes in high school, I wasn’t familiar with the profession. No one in my family had graduated from college. While visiting Southern University, which was located less than two miles from my home, a friend majoring in architecture invited me to his studio. After some research on architecture, I was able to connect the dots related to construction, art, and drafting — and knew then that I was destined to be an architect.

PM: Where does your passion for nature come from?

DW: It started during my early years growing up in Louisiana, in both rural and urban areas, and spending lots of time outdoors hunting, fishing and playing sports. After moving to Charlotte, I served several years on the City Parks Advisory Committee and later the County Parks Commission, followed by eight years as a Mecklenburg County Commissioner. My early years combined with that very valuable experience serving on boards, political office and living in urban areas gave me a deep appreciation, understanding and passion for nature and the benefits of parks, open space, and recreation for young people.

PM: Your firm is called Neighboring Concepts. What does that mean and what specifically do you and your team set out to accomplish?

DW: We are an architectural and planning firm with a mission of “transforming communities through architecture.” The name was derived from our initial focus, to help develop sustainable comprehensive revitalization plans for physically and socially challenged urban neighborhoods like those I grew up in … which still exist all over this country. We strongly believe in collaborating, partnering, and utilizing an inclusive community building process to develop sustainable solutions that improves the quality of life for all.

PM: What are your guiding principles when you start a sustainable neighborhood project?

DW: Our model for sustainability always includes the following three areas, regardless of the project type: environmental, social and economic. Our mission expands these areas to create sustainable places that values the following six spheres: vision & expression, environmental stewardship, economic prosperity, community engagement, place-making, and mobility.

PM: How do you ensure success for people, planet, and profit?

DW: We ensure success of our projects by evaluating each possible solution and decision relative to how they stack up to our model for sustainability and these six spheres. Our principles are also guided by the following statement that were created by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development: “How do we meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.”

PM: How do you measure the outcomes and success of your projects for nature and people?

DW: We measure the success of our projects by how the users of the spaces enjoy and respond to them, how our environmental goals are met (including indoor air quality, energy efficiency, long term energy and maintenance costs, etc.), and how the spaces meet the short- and long-term needs of its users.

PM: You also served in the role of Parks Commissioner in Charlotte. What is the role of city government in ensuring green and equitable neighborhoods?

DW: In Charlotte, the county is responsible for human services, parks and recreation, development of greenways and open spaces. The city is responsible for long term planning, zoning, housing and community development. Both the city and the county play significant roles in promoting green, sustainable, and equitable neighborhoods. The challenges that exist today in our urban neighborhoods did not come overnight. Even with lots of collaborating by the community residents, businesses, city, county. and numerous other supporters and stakeholders, developing sustainable solutions requires patience. The work has to be focused, strategic, and intentional without losing the over-arching goals established with the community, not for the community.

PM: You also serve as a volunteer trustee on The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina board. How is our urban work shaping the future of the Conservancy there?

DW: Based on my background, experiences, and understanding of how parks and open space can impact urban areas, I was very excited to hear about the Conservancy’s involvement in our urban communities —not only in NC but around the world. It is absolutely essential that TNC is able to study and understand the most critical challenges that exists in urban communities today and how its work can help uncover viable sustainable solutions. These solutions may or may not be directly related to Conservancy work traditionally, but being considered an organization that is willing to think outside of the box to help solve urban challenges could go a long way toward making The Nature Conservancy more viable and more diverse moving forward. As an African American who’s served on TNC’s NC Board now for several years, I know that there’s a certain perception about what the organization is or is not. However, there are more things that TNC has in common within these urban areas than is currently realized. The most obvious way that TNC urban works are beginning to shape the future of the Conservancy is to ensure that young children of diverse backgrounds are exposed to nature outside of their comfort zone. Like architecture, I stumbled upon my interest for nature and its benefits to urban areas. We must be intentional in promoting and educating those within urban communities relative to the benefits of nature and the role TNC can play, particularly for our young people.

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