Tom Eblen: UK College of Design's River Cities Project could soon get international attention

project might be part of international exhibition

Herald-Leader columnistApril 25, 2011 

How do you turn liabilities into assets, then use them to improve the economy? That is a challenge facing the University of Kentucky's College of Design and leaders in three Kentucky cities along the Ohio River.

While the work in Henderson, Paducah and Louisville is still in early stages, it could soon get some international attention. UK hopes to receive confirmation next week that its Kentucky River Cities project has been chosen for inclusion in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in April 2012.

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it "aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives." Next year's Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities, which over the next few decades are projected to house 80 percent of the world's people on less than 3 percent of the earth's surface.

The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo, — but will include other examples of innovation around the world. "It's a big deal to be included," said Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design. "They get a huge number of applications from all over the world."

Henk Ovink, director of national spatial planning for the Netherlands and a Biennale organizer, has visited Kentucky three times to speak at the college and observe the River Cities project.

The River Cities project began nearly four years ago as a five-day design workshop in Henderson by the college and the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, where Speaks then directed the graduate program. Several people from those schools were Henderson natives, and they were trying to help local business and civic leaders imagine how to redesign and revitalize the cities to adapt to the changing economy.

After Speaks moved to UK a year later, "The Henderson Project" was broadened to include other Ohio River cities that face similar issues. Along with local leaders and design professionals, the college is working with UK's Center for Applied Energy Research and architects from Los Angeles, Detroit, Holland and Norway.

"It's an opportunity to show that design is not just about aesthetics," Speaks said. "Good design can be a real economic value-adder, and it can change the economics and cultural makeup of cities."

UK students also are working on redevelopment ideas for an area of Louisville's West End near the Ford Motor Co. plant and investigating long-term possibilities for reusing a former uranium enrichment plant in Paducah.

But most of the work has been in Henderson, with a focus on the Henderson Municipal Power & Light Plant No. 1, an old coal-fired plant that was decommissioned a few years ago.

Originally, city leaders thought the power plant needed to be demolished to redevelop the area. But Speaks said that has turned to looking for ways to renovate the huge plant for uses such as a convention center, offices for energy-related companies or even an IMAX movie theater.

"We have tried to make ourselves part of these communities," Speaks said, by working closely with local leaders to help create design solutions that will meet their needs and achieve their goals.

The River Cities project is an example of how Speaks wants the college to become a state resource, offering design-related help for economic and social issues. Another example is a project that has designed attractive, affordable and energy-efficient homes that can be mass produced at idle houseboat factories around Lake Cumberland. Another idea on the horizon: creating a Kentucky Mayor's Institute for Design to help local officials with urban planning issues.

This kind of collaboration could have applications far beyond Kentucky, which is why the Biennale is interested in showcasing UK's work.

Reach Tom Eblen at or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at

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