Get Excited About Urban Design with Deb Ryan

Published on November 16, 2023

UNC Charlotte Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Deb Ryan

Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Deb Ryan (Photo provided by UNC Charlotte)

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By Kayla Chadwick-Schultz

Walking toward The Dubois Center in Uptown Charlotte’s First Ward, one would be forgiven for not realizing its ties to The University of North Carolina at Charlotte on first glance. This building is a bit of a departure from the iconic red brick and green lawns that make up the university’s main campus. Instead, The Dubois Center is a towering structure of metal and glass with a unique, asymmetrical design. It’s a statement piece, to say the least, and it strategically overlooks First Ward Park—one of the university’s many successful urban design partnerships.

When my colleague, Jason Puckett, and I walked past First Ward Park on our way into The Dubois Center, we had no idea that we were about to speak with someone instrumental in the park’s creation. All we really knew about Deb Ryan was that she’s an incredibly accomplished landscape architect and professor at UNC Charlotte and that she recently served as the faculty advisor on the 2023 Urban Design Awards winner for Great Student Project. By the time we left, however, we had discovered a passion for urban design in Charlotte that is truly inspirational. 

The Dubois Center at UNC Charlotte Center City.

The Dubois Center at UNC Charlotte Center City.

A Practicing Academic 

We met Deb Ryan, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UNC Charlotte, in her studio up on the 10th floor of The Dubois Center. The first thing we noticed was the view. How could you not? The back wall was almost entirely made of glass; it practically begged us to look out onto the city. Once we finished marveling at the view, our sights turned to the rest of the studio—colorful walls lined with bookshelves and student projects, comfy couches against large drafting tables, and a smattering of puzzles to encourage collaboration. This was not your typical classroom. Given Ryan’s long history at the university, it made sense that she would have such an eclectic studio. After all, she’s not your typical professor.

Ryan considers herself a “practicing academic,” meaning she is actively practicing landscape architecture and urban design in addition to teaching students. She also values active community involvement, having served on a variety of commissions and committees across the city. Truthfully, I could spend paragraph after paragraph talking about Ryan’s background, but that’s not why Jason and I were visiting her. Instead, we were there to chat about the third annual Urban Design Awards.

The City of Charlotte Urban Design Center (UDC) and UNC Charlotte School of Architecture presented the Urbies, as they’re known, during a small ceremony on Oct. 19, 2023. One of the award winners was Ryan’s previous architecture class, which took home the Urbie for Great Student Project. 

Advising Great Student Projects 

As the faculty advisor for the award-winning BOPlex Park Vision Plan, Ryan played an instrumental role in the project’s initial stages. Not only did she have to identify a project, but she also had to decide what the focus of that project was going to be. “This particular project was about how to use faith-based ideas in developing community,” revealed Ryan. “We were lucky enough to work with a church on the project and sort of develop that idea hand-in-hand with them, in terms of what it meant to them.”

Ryan’s students worked extremely hard to bring all the complexities of an urban, faith-based community space to life. “For me, urban design is like juggling. It’s a multidisciplinary design idea that involves everything from real estate economics, sociology, civil engineering, understanding about the environment, issues of sustainability, how big buildings are, how big roads are,” Ryan explained. “So, I’m going to throw all of that at them and make them juggle it all and figure out how to make sense of all those different components.” Ryan went on to note that the addition of spirituality within the project’s design was like another ball for her students to juggle on the, and the fact that they were up for the task is what she believes won them the Urbie.

Food hall and plaza rendering from BoPlex Park Vision Plan.

Food hall and plaza rendering from BoPlex Park Vision Plan.

Despite this being Ryan’s first Urban Design Award as a faculty advisor, she is no stranger to successful student projects making waves in the community. In fact, one of her former classes was instrumental in the establishment of two urban parks in Charlotte: Romare Bearden Park and First Ward Park.

Back in the 2000s, Ryan presented the need for more urban parks in Charlotte to Mecklenburg County’s Park and Recreation department. Agreeing with her assessment, the department offered funding for her and her students to conduct a study and create conceptual designs for what urban parks in Charlotte might look like.

“We did a master plan, where we cited two parks in Uptown Charlotte,” shared Ryan. “The two parks that we positioned and just very conceptually designed turned out to be Romare Bearden Park and First Ward Park. Even though we didn’t design those parks, we were very instrumental in saying the city needed to have them, making the argument for Parks and Rec, and then location the two that actually got built.”

Now, thanks to the foresight of Ryan and her students, Charlotte residents can enjoy exceptional urban parks in Uptown, and that’s really what it’s all about. While the awards and achievements are nice, contributing to the betterment of the community is why urban designers do what they do—and it’s what Ryan preaches in her classroom.

Urban Design and the Community 

Whether we realize it or not, we interact with urban design daily. The layout of the roads in your neighborhood, the location of your nearest grocery store or public school, the distance between the light rail and your office, the greenways and how they connect to designated bike lanes—all of that is by design. Someone, maybe even a former student of Deb Ryan, sat down and mapped it all out with you in mind.

The goal of urban design is to create innovative space for communities, which means voices from within those communities need to be at the forefront of every urban design conversation. Gathering those voices, however, hasn’t always been easy.

“One of the things we struggle with, in terms of urban design and city planning, is actually getting young people to show up at public meetings and tell us what they think,” said Ryan. “But if we’re designing for 20 years out, we’re designing their world. So, they have to be part of the conversation.”

People gathered outside of the Urban Design Center studio.

People gathered outside of the Urban Design Center studio.

Luckily for Ryan, she gets to engage in conversations with young people every time she steps into the classroom, and what she’s discovered from them is a genuine desire for a better world. “Diversity is who they are. It’s what they believe in. It’s so ingrained in them that they don’t oftentimes get why we talk about it so much, because it’s their world,” Ryan said of her students. “I’m very hopeful because their attitudes are so inclusive. They’re going to create a better world. I’m absolutely convinced of that.”

The idea of urban design making the world a better place is one that Deb Ryan shares with everyone at the UDC. In fact, the UDC believes so strongly in the community getting involved with urban design and contributing to big conversations about the future of the city that they are inviting the public to the 2023 Urban Design Awards Showcase on Nov. 30. This showcase is the first opportunity for the community to engage with this year’s Urbies Awards winners and learn about the various aspects of urban design that they represent.

Learn more about the City of Charlotte Urban Design Center.