GrowingChange Prison Flip: Reclaiming an Abandoned Prison Site


Community Service

Wagram, NC, USA | Juana Gibson, Student ASLA; Kyle Semon, Student Affiliate ASLA; Josh Leab, Associate ASLA; Beth Faragan, Associate ASLA; Pei Chi Huang, Student ASLA; Sarah Walters, Student ASLA; Manpreet Kaur, Student ASLA; Yushan Ji, Student ASLA | Graduate and Undergraduate | Faculty Advisor: Dr. Celen Pasalar
North Carolina State University | Client/Owner: GrowingChange


Recent pressing societal challenges present the importance of working in rural areas to create environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable communities. Student design teams in partnership with the youth empowered non-profit organization, GrowingChange addressed unique challenges existing in Scotland County, North Carolina, such as an increasing number of underutilized brownfield properties; an escalating number of youth falling into the justice system; a lack of job opportunities for returning veterans; inadequate opportunities for workforce training; limited access to sustainably grown local food; and a rising number of health concerns. The student design teams created master plans that aimed to flip and enhance the prison's landscape. Building upon the participatory engagement model, students developed and facilitated community design workshops in partnership with the GrowingChange, institutional organizations, faith communities, and local residents. Proposed design scenarios have already empowered GrowingChange to raise funds and promote a model to be implemented internationally for decommissioned, brownfield prison sites into new community building functions.


Project Goals/Objectives

Establishing successful, healthy, and sustainable community-based initiatives in rural communities of North Carolina, such as Scotland County, requires cohesive and long-term partnerships between key stakeholders including academic institutions, community non-profit groups, decision makers, businesses, faith community and residents. This effort attracted key partnerships among the College of Design, the youth empowered non-profit organization GrowingChange, NCSU’s Cooperative Extension, the UNC at Pembroke, Department of Public Safety, veterans, faith communities, and local residents. GrowingChange, approached the landscape architecture department with a request of creating a vision that would help to create a master plan that addresses the challenging issues in the communities of Scotland County, North Carolina. The county currently has a decommissioned brownfield prison site (61 acres), high number of youth in the justice system, lack of health and access to organic food, and joblessness and inactive population growth.

The primary intent of this effort was to reclaim an abandoned prison site located in the Town of Wagram, Scotland County and develop design alternatives that will help create a place for GrowingChange to achieve its mission to help young people at risk of falling into the justice system; to create job opportunities for veterans; to attain education, vocational training and service learning for the local community; and to sustain positive health outcomes, environmental awareness, and community engagement for the Town of Wagram and Scotland County.


Our design process has used both research-based and participatory methods. The process included literature reviews, case study analysis, field-trips, and on-site workshops through which student design teams developed substantive knowledge of what makes a “healthy” community and how challenging and regionally specific sites can accommodate programs as they relate to health, livability, and quality of experience. Specific attention was given to how place-based community development approaches and site-design strategies foster changes in the built environment, help preserve key site features, and contribute to sustainable improvements in the health of communities. This student-led effort offered a process, which helped both students and stakeholders learn, apply, test, and evaluate the design approaches for adaptive reuse of abandoned and challenging sites in communities with complex landscapes.

During the first phase of the project, student design teams worked with GrowingChange to establish a clear project mission and process understanding. We discussed issues concerning prison systems and other social problems in rural communities, the non-profit’s missions/desires, stakeholder hierarchy, and the overall first impressions of the site. Following this first phase, a contextual survey and analysis of the county was completed. This analysis focused on history, culture, recreation/amenities, education, socio-economic and political systems, legal contexts, and demographics through the use of national data sites for sourcing statistics and information. Our findings revealed that Scotland County’s rich history has roots in Scottish heritage, African American celebrations of music, and a strong military community. Despite these valuable social aspects the county faces problems in its education system, quality of life, economic opportunities, and health and wellness. The county is among the poorest in the nation. It has high crime rates and increasingly students of varying ages are dropping out of schools. The county is also a food desert, it has the state’s highest food insecurity percentage. A majority of people buy their food from fast-food restaurants and gas stations.

After receiving a better understanding of the county, we then moved onto site specific inventory and analysis, utilizing on-site observations and GIS data for retrieving environmental information. During this phase, we documented the existing conditions of the old prison site including buildings (their character, materials, and experiential qualities) and the environmental characteristics such as soils, topography, ecological systems, hydrology, and opportunities for potential agricultural activities. At the end of the contextual study and site analysis we identified numerous opportunities on the site that will potentially strengthen the community related to economic viability, environmental sustainability, community well-being, and social justice.

Case studies of similar efforts were also explored, ranging from the Highway Beautification Act to prison sites that had been adapted for social and cultural needs such as art studios or community restaurants. Student teams investigated the precedent studies that included organizations that afforded programming similar to the needs of GrowingChange. Subsequently, utilizing a participatory engagement model, the students developed and facilitated community design workshops to collect data on spaces and activities in which citizens would wish to be engaged in on the old prison site. Three main activities were developed for the community workshops. The first activity asked the participants to share their sacred spaces primarily in the Town of Wagram and their mode of transportation to those locations. The second activity, a rating exercise asked participants to rate preferred spaces that were based on Kaplan and Kaplan’s research on environmental preferences. The third activity utilized the “game strategy” inspired by Henry Sanoff's “Community Participation Methods in Design and Planning”. The workshop participants were asked to place the preferred activity icons in support of the future experiences envisioned for the site. This process of community engagement shed light on the values and goals of the community that needed to be incorporated into the next phase, design development.

Economic viability, environmental sustainability, community well-being, and social justice were the overall project goals, which informed the site specific design principles and implementations in the development of site-plans and evaluation of conceptual design scenarios. Seven student design teams developed unique design concepts and approaches for re-purposing the old Wagram prison site. These design scenarios varied from programming to configuration of diverse activity spaces on the site. However, each design took the abstract community values, and stakeholder needs/desires, and transformed them into physical spaces that addressed the harsh realities of the rural county. Once the seven design scenarios were presented, a final site plan was created that combined the strongest aspects of all of the designs as voiced by GrowingChange and other involved stakeholders.

The final site design transforms the site into a place of agricultural production, educational opportunities, cultural stage, and recreational resources for the community, so that they can expand their opportunities to stimulate healthy lifestyles and experiences. The design is broken up into six major factors: connection, recreation, transformation, production, and education. All of these factors work together to create a working landscape. Agricultural production lends to vocational classrooms, learning farms, market and demonstration farm, and nature trails. Physical recreation opportunities afford tree camping and adventure courses, while GrowingChange headquarters and a counseling center provide mental growth and social connections. While addressing economic and social concerns, the site supports sustainable design principles by utilizing renewable energy practices, low-impact storm water design, and adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure.

Our process and proposed design ideas offered stakeholders a “tool kit” of approaches and information to help them better assess local needs, inform their planning and site-specific development decision-making processes, and document outcomes as they relate to health, ecological functions, and overall livability.

“There was a powerful symbolism about what they were doing: The project seemed to say we have no space to waste, and no humans to waste. It has the potential to remind people that there are forgotten places like this that can be made useful again.”

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