Thames River Heritage Park Plan
Courtesy of YUDW A site plan of the Thames River Heritage Park Plan, an in-progress initiative of the Yale Urban Design Workshop designed to create a state heritage park in Connecticut that was originally envisioned more than 50 years ago.

It’s an ambitious plan in one of the most contested regions of the world: Since 2008, students in the Yale Urban Design Workshop (YUDW), a community design center connected to Yale University’s vaunted School of Architecture, have been working to create the 1,200-acre Peace Park that will straddle the border between Israel and Jordan. Students have led charrettes, developed plans, and communicated with Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian professionals and students. It’s a multiyear process, fraught with uncertainty, and yet slowly and steadily it’s moving forward.

But, the YUDW started smaller. Since 1992, it has provided neighborhood planning and community design services at all scales to towns across the state of Connecticut, including the university’s host city of New Haven. Although their work in the Middle East seems a world apart from the leafy New England charm of Connecticut, according to Alan Plattus, a longtime Yale professor and founder of the YUDW, at its root it’s much the same: to get out in the community, understand the political and economic realities, and develop workable solutions.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Plattus says, “Yale was waking up to its responsibility to get more meaningfully engaged in the local community. At the same time, New Haven wasn’t doing so well. Things were kind of at a low point. So there was this need from both the inside and the outside to create this kind of community design center.”

With the help of some U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants and partnerships, the YUDW quickly set up shop, first on the Yale campus and then in a ground-level storefront in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood, located just west of the university. Since the beginning, the workshop has had a long relationship with the Dwight community, contributing several iterations of a Neighborhood Plan and collaborating with local architects Thompson|Edwards on a new building housing the neighborhood daycare center and Greater Dwight Development among other projects.

About a year ago, the YUDW had to move to a second-floor space in the same building because the neighborhood wanted to use the first floor for retail. “It’s a good problem to have in that there are no long-term vacancies here,” Plattus says. “For architecture students, it’s really healthy for them to walk a couple blocks down the street and interact with the community.”

Under the guidance of Plattus and Andrei Harwell, AIA, a fellow professor and a project manager, the workshop is staffed by current graduate architecture students as well as alumni and students from other Yale professional schools (such as the School of Forestry and Environmental Science). The workshop affords students the ability to combine the intellectual freedom of the academy—particularly the School of Architecture’s famous first-year building project—with the constraints of real-world problems and budgets.

One YUDW intern, Apoorva Khanolkar, had worked in urban redevelopment in Mumbai, India, before attending Yale. “Both my education and my previous work experience have equipped me with an equal measure of naiveté and pragmatism that came to use while working on a real job, but one that was still grounded in an academic universe.”

Among several other ongoing projects, the YUDW is now engaged in two major waterfront efforts in Connecticut. Two of the YUDW’s ongoing projects consist of major waterfront efforts in Connecticut. One is a plan for Thames River Heritage Park, which would tie together the historic towns of New London and Groton with a water taxi and other connective signage as a means to boost heritage tourism and local economies. Another major effort involves a resiliency plan for the town of Bridgeport, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. Along with New Orleans firm Waggonner & Ball, international firm Arcadis, and others, the YUDW is working to develop specific projects and plans that will protect Bridgeport against the effects of climate change while meeting other design goals.

“It is critical that institutions like Yale take their urban, social, and economic contributions seriously,” Khanolkar says. “Yale has a tremendous footprint in the region with massive ramifications for local communities, and the YUDW aspires to leverage its resources— both material and intellectual—into the well-being of these people.”

And not just them—but maybe even people far beyond the borders of a campus and a country, too.