Updated: Jan 29
To celebrate 38 years of ensuring design as a right, not a privilege in communities throughout Central Ohio, we spoke with Nick Bankston about the recent Hilltop Community Plan process. Bankston is the Project Manager of Neighborhood Transformation Strategies in the Department of Neighborhoods at the City of Columbus and led the city’s facilitation of both the Linden and Hilltop community plans with NDC.
Read the interview to learn more about the approach and strategy that went into the extensive community planning processes.
Matt Adair (Senior Planner, NDC): Hi Nick! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about NDC during our #DiscoverNDC campaign. This week is about celebrating 38 years of making sure access to quality design is a right, not a privilege. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what value our organization brings to projects and why you think others should #DiscoverNDC this week!
In your role as Project Manager of Neighborhood Transformation Strategies in the Department of Neighborhoods, you worked closely with NDC on both the Linden and Hilltop community plans. Can you talk about the added value that NDC brings to this kind of community-based work? What makes the Neighborhood Design Center a good fit for the Department of Neighborhood’s goals?
Nick Bankston: Of course, and I’m so happy to have the chance to discuss the investments and strategies of the City of Columbus in neighborhoods over the past few years.
I’ve always said that NDC has been a great partner, and one reason is because of the Neighborhood Design Center’s physical proximity to the work. Being local and grassroots always makes a difference.
With a 38-year legacy in the City of Columbus, NDC is able to show up and create lasting relationships with different individuals and residents. In my opinion, that’s really what sets NDC apart. You’re not just planning for the community, but planning with the community—being present and taking the time necessary to actually build authentic relationships. That’s the added value that NDC brought to the table in both Linden and the Hilltop.
Matt: We certainly value our urban location in a mixed-income neighborhood as an asset to our perspective on planning and design. So in those community planning projects do you have any memories that stick out? Anything you look back on fondly?
Nick: There are so many, but I think the one that really sticks out the most is about NDC and their commitment to this work. After the plan was done, NDC stuck around and leveraged the relationships they built with the community. When we unveiled the plan, we had over 100 actual residents at that event. This speaks volumes about the amount of work NDC did in community outreach during the planning process.
Then, a year later, when we did an update to residents and stakeholders, we had more than 300 residents participate. And NDC was still there, helping and volunteering all along the way. Not necessarily because it was part of the contract, but it was part of who NDC is as an organization.
Matt: Absolutely. We don’t view ourselves as outside consultants, especially when working in neighborhoods where we’ve worked as a partner to the city and university since 1982.
What are some aspects of the actual plan that maybe you advocated for or saw develop organically? When you look through the document, what really makes you proud of your role in that work in conjunction with NDC and neighborhood residents?
Nick (L) assisting Hilltop residents with an exercise during an Envision Hilltop event at the J. Ashburn Center in 2019.
Nick: Well, another thing that NDC brings to the table is authenticity. There are many times I remember fondly that you, Kerry and I were in board rooms with different city departments…and you know, it got a little testy at times.
But throughout it all, there was truly authentic advocacy for the residents. The recommendations we were making in the plan were coming from residents, not from us. Our job was to be a liaison and amplify their voices. It wasn’t about the politics of it all, but about the people. The people were always front and center.
One of my favorite things when I look back at the plan itself is a recommendation about Glenwood Park on the Hilltop. We had gone back and forth with the folks in the Recreation & Parks Department for a while about resident feedback for that green space. And today, there are significant improvements for that park undergoing design.
The goal is to go in and trim some brush and open up the space to create a kind of educational wildlife area that residents and visitors can enjoy. This is a direct result of the advocacy that NDC brought to the table, not just here on assignment as a consultant, but as an advocate for the residents in that community.
Matt: I look forward to exploring the new and improved Glenwood Park in the future! I wonder if you could talk about some of the biggest lessons you learned from the community planning work?
Nick: This is something we say often but sometimes we don’t do in practice. One thing I definitely learned is that every community is unique. Regardless of what the statistics are or what the data says.
When we look at the data of both Linden and the Hilltop comparatively, they look very similar on paper. It might seem like they’re going through the same issues and look very similar. But they are both very unique and very different in the challenges they face.
The individuals are very unique, the organizations are different, and so I think that that was really the thing that I took to heart and take with me each day now.
Data is nothing without the context, and you have to dig deep and you have to go into these neighborhoods and actually sit with the people who are going through these things experiencing them to really truly understand what it is before you can come in and make any kind of recommendation. So that’s what sticks with me the most, was a truly a commitment to community and service from the Neighborhood Design Center.
Matt: Thank you again for joining me today to talk about our work, Nick! Let’s hope we get more opportunities to work together in the future.
Nick: Thank you for the opportunity! It’s always a pleasure to talk about our commitment to neighborhoods.