Finger Lakes Community Design Center: Planning For a Greener Future

The Finger Lakes Institute, in partnership with Hobart & William Smith Colleges has created a community design center, dubbed the FLI-CDC, which strives to provide Finger Lakes communities with innovative, creative, and sustainable design solutions that improve the built environment and quality of life, while protecting the natural environment. Support for the FLI-CDC has been generously provided by the Isabel Foundation.


 Communities throughout the Finger Lakes region share similar economic, environmental, and social characteristics mainly as a result of the natural assets and history of the region. The current and future state of communities relies on improving quality of life for all citizens, being good stewards of natural resources, and fostering the responsible growth of the built environment. To support these efforts, the FLI-CDC offers comprehensive sustainable community development planning and design services to communities throughout the Finger Lakes region. To direct these efforts, the FLI-CDC has hired Cari Varner, Instructor of Architectural Studies at HWS to lead student interns through the design process. Cari is the former assistant director of the Carl Small Town Center, a community design center at Mississippi State University, where she led similar projects focused on small towns and rural communities. In 2009, Cari was recognized as an Emerging Leader in Sustainable Design by the Design Futures Council. Five student interns from Architectural Studies and Environmental Studies were also hired to support the program; Chelsea Encababian WS’14, Jamal Combs H’13, Audrey Yifei Li WS’15, Joellen Mauch WS’15, and Margaret Markham WS’14. 


As the summer quickly progresses, so does our work here at the FLI-CDC.  It has already been five weeks since the projects have commenced and the team has spent a lot of time researching and diving into their tasks thus far. 


The first project is in partnership with the Genesee/Finger lakes Regional Planning Council (GFLRPC).  The project takes a look at Ontario County and its seven National Register Historic Districts, and the green infrastructure techniques that can be implemented there.  The seven districts are the Canandaigua National Historc District, East Bloomfield Historic District, Clifton Springs Sanitarium Historic District, Farmington Quaker Crossroad Historic District, Genessee Park Historic District, Geneva South Main Street Historic District, and Downtown Geneva (which is in the process of certification). 


 In the beginning of the summer three of the students, Jamal Combs , Joellen Mauch and Margaret Markham work at looking back in time to try and discover if there were any green infrastructure techniques were done historically in these districts.  The students traveled to each of the districts and visited their historical societies and museums.  There they spoke with archivists and looked through archived documents and photographs to try and spot any green infrastructure historically used.  They found that each of the districts had used some form of infrastructure to monitor and manage storm water.  An example is that in East Bloomfield, they utilized permeable paving and rain gardens. They also found that in Canandaigua they had used hand dug ditches that works as the equivalent of  today’s bioswale. In Geneva’s South Main Historic District, a historic image of 127 South Main Street showed Geneva shows tree-lined streets, permeable paving and a bioswale. These bioswales helped prevent flooding in the properties along the east side of South Main, which are located downhill from the roadway, as the topography drops to Seneca Lake. This helped prevent erosion in the area as well. Street trees have been found to absorb up to 30% of water from a rain event, helping reduce the amount of run-off that reaches traditional water treatment infrastructure and filtering pollutants.


The second project that has been under works this summer is a partnership with the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center (GNRC) that looks at the Routes 5&20 from the corridor west of Pulteney Street to the town limits.  Along the corridor are big box retailers and some smaller businesses, typical of a commercial corridor anywhere in the United States. What lacks in the built environment of this corridor is a sense of place of the community that can go beyond cars.  The projects takes a look at the condition of Routes 5&20 and how the City and Town can work together to manage the corridor by working in green infrastructure techniques.  The project will also look into the architectural character of Geneva to make suggestions to improve the aesthetics of the environment to improve walkability and create a sense of place. 


In the beginning of the summer, Chelsea Encababian and Audrey Li worked together to create a poster project to exhibit the history of the corridor of Routes 5&20.  The students worked with the Geneva Historical Society to find photographs and documentation of the history of the corridor of Routes 5&20.  They also worked on site, traveling to the streets and big box retail parking lots to get more of an understanding of their work.  What they found revealed the political and societal issues that has led to the current distressed state of the corridor.  At the end of WWII there was an increase in the middle class population.  More people moved out of cities into suburbia, contributing to sprawl.  The more suburban sprawl occurred the more business people saw the potential for the “all in one” store, like Wal-Mart.  As a result was what we have today, a highway that runs along major retailers that are driving citizens away from local businesses and becoming and eyesore for the built environment.  An example is the blinking light signs in front of Walgreens.  When researching through the historical societies, what the students found was that before these retailers built their stores, what was once along the corridor was nurseries and farms.  The students tried to demonstrate this drastic historical change within their poster project, which can be seen below.


 Check back to the blog this summer for further updates on our progress. For more information on the FLI-CDC, please contact Cari Varner at



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