Urban Sociology Comes to Life

Wouldn’t it be cool to go to a college where you could actually practice the principles of urban sociology in the local community? Look no further than New College of Florida, where a sociology professor and his students are working with community leaders to revitalize commercial development on the north end of Sarasota’s most prestigious barrier island, Longboat Key.

The New College connection came about when Tom Aposporos, a Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force member and president of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce, suggested that local independent resources be used to conduct a community-based planning study. His search quickly led to New College and its noted urban sociologist, Dr. David Brain.

Structured as an Independent Study Project, Professor Brain and his students have been collecting background materials and data, and interviewing residents, business and property owners to seek their ideas for the area, including potential uses for its commercial properties. Brain describes the information gathering as “a little history, a review of past plans, a review of existing zoning, and an analysis of existing conditions.”

A board member of the National Charrette Institute based in Portland, Oregon, Brain designed and led a community planning charrette for various stakeholders, with the students serving as table facilitators. The workshop included a mapping exercise to identify the opportunities and challenges in the community, followed by an opportunity for the stakeholders to express their values by describing their vision for the future of Longboat Village (an historic enclave on the north end of the Key) and adjacent commercial areas. Afterwards, each group presented their findings, followed by consensus testing and discussion.

Ultimately, the results will be assembled into a report that will be the subject of more public discussion and a design workshop with architects, planners and other local professionals. The final work product will be presented publicly to the community for consideration. If adopted, New College students and faculty will have played a key role in the revitalization of a community treasure.

“The north Longboat Key planning charrette beginning was, by all accounts, an extraordinary step forward in north Longboat’s future,” stated Aposporos. “The work of Dr. Brain and his five students has been highly complimented by the nearly 40 stake holders who participated. And I think the students enjoyed a positive educational and life experience. They more than held their own with some stellar people with extraordinary backgrounds.”

Brain concurs that these are great learning experiences for the students. “It’s urban sociology come to life,” he says. In the spring, he and his students will be working in downtown Bradenton, Florida, helping to create a plan to boost an area near downtown that has been redeveloped as an arts community.

Professor Brain enjoys teaching at New College because it reminds him of his graduate work at Harvard, where there were small groups, personal contact and serious engagement on the part of the students.

“The entire New College faculty is committed to this notion of what it means to work closely with students and oversee real student learning,” he says. In Brain’s case, ‘real student learning’ has truly become ‘real world learning,’ as well.

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