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Dec 7th, 2023

Volunteer Project: Partnership with Carleton Students Powers Active Youth Spaces 

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A growing partnership between Ottawa Community Housing and students from Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism has powered active space in Russell Heights.   

The students started working with OCH’s Volunteer Engagement Program in March. The result is a makeover of the community’s basketball court and a pergola to create a new outdoor activity space and renovations to the kitchen at the Youth House.  

In the kitchen, students removed the popcorn ceiling and flooring, painted, created proper venting, and put in a new sink.  

Before one tool was lifted, residents had their say about needed community improvements.   

The students hosted community workshops and showcased initial designs.   

Sara Dwyer, Executive Director of the Russell Heights Family House, said the first community meeting took place with the community’s women.   

Sara said many of the comments were around a need for the community to look cleaner and address littering issues. They also wanted improved lighting, outdoor communal meeting space, and seating.   

Dr. Menna Agha, who led the project, said community projects are a way to get students out of the lab and experience what they are learning in the real world. The students picked locations where they felt they could make an impact.   

“They were drawn to the Youth House and the basketball court. Those spaces needed help and students felt they could make a difference,” Menna said.   

Students started with aerial views of the community and developed some initial designs. They presented to the Women’s Group and the youth program.   

Sara said the community has lost the use of the Dempsey Community Centre, now a temporary shelter. Recreation programs that ran out of the community centre are currently not available.   

The community is home to nearly 200 children aged 5 to 17, so recreation is important, she said, adding students took the physical environment into account, looking for additional active space – such as outdoor exercise equipment or ways to use the fence around the court to be involved, which will be included in a second phase of work – to start in 2024.    

Not only did Carleton students get to visit the community, but youth from the community could also spend Saturdays at the university playing basketball. They’ve also attended the university to participate in design workshops.   

These improvements take into account the character of the community. Designs from some of the African clothing in the Women’s group at Russell Heights have been incorporated into the designs on the   

This is the second project Carleton has worked on with OCH. Another, a community fridge and pantry in the community at 415 MacLaren created dedicated outdoor spaces for residents to access food and personal items. The Glebe St. James United Church supplies it each week.   

Menna said the Interaction Lab – a research and advocacy lab for architecture schools – started two years ago. Students are activists, and they come to do social projects. The goal is to show how architecture intervention can help support community needs. They even raise the funds so the partners they work with won’t be burdened with the project’s cost.   

“We want to make landmarks people are proud of,” she said. “We are grateful to have the tenants approve and agree to what we are doing.”