Usonia 21: The School of Architecture Service-Learning Project


In the summer of 2021, The School of Architecture  launched its ongoing community design-build and outreach program, Usonia 21. The program supports inclusivity and resilience of underserved and historically exploited communities. The focus of this year’s initiative centers on a collaborative effort between the School and Land Rich, an organization founded by Robert Wynn that works on land loss issues and heirs property connected to historically African American family property throughout the Southeast and the Johnny Carson Center’s Storytelling + Worldbuilding Lab (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln headed by Ash Eliza Smith.) The collaborative project will create an augmented reality-enabled immersive storytelling experience that will serve as both an activist and a documentary platform, bringing Seabreeze, a historical black community impacted by predatory land seizure, back to life. The augmented reality project will be used to spread awareness about the epidemic of black land loss in the United States, and double up as a community design tool for creating a brighter future. The project will culminate with students and faculty building a prototype for affordable provisional housing that will serve as a physical anchor and entry point to the project’s augmented reality historical reconstruction: the Seabreeze Bop City.

Images from the initial site analysis

For decades, Black families have been losing their ancestral lands to predatory development practices that take advantage of heirs’ property loopholes. Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland due to these practices, contributing greatly to America’s current racial wealth gap. This type of heirs’ property land loss occurs when land is passed down without a will. As the land is handed down through the generations, the land title becomes murky and the ownership becomes jeopardized, making it easy picking for developers and predatory land practices. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.”

Images from the initial site analysis

The focus of this year’s Usonia 21 initiative is Seabreeze, North Carolina, a Jim Crow-era beach community founded by formerly enslaved Alexander and Charity Freeman. Over time, Seabreeze grew into a thriving beachside community where Black people owned the land and all the businesses, complete with motels and boarding houses, a dance hall, and juke joints, which attracted touring Black musicians and entertainers like James Brown, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. This thriving seaside community gave people of color a rare chance to celebrate and relax at the seashore.

Once an incubator of African American music and culture, today the area is one of the many examples of the scourge of Black land loss across the Southeast. In 2008, hundreds of acres of oceanfront property that once made up the Seabreeze beach community was bought out from under the Freeman Family in a partition sale, with very little compensation for the people who invested generations of caretaking for this place. Like many historic Black-owned family properties, the Freeman family’s land was primarily passed down through the generations informally, instead of through wills or other legally documented transfers of ownership. Today, much of Seabreeze’s land is heirs’ property and, as such, is vulnerable to these predatory development practices.

As parts of its initiatives to support inclusivity and resilience, the School will prototype its first Land Rich Tiny House on a waterfront plot of Seabreeze owned by Billy Freeman. This portable structure will serve as a prototype for provisional housing and community buildings throughout the Land Rich network as the team works with families to bring their properties out of heirs’ property status. The building will function as an Airbnb, who’s rental income will benefit the Freeman family and the Land Rich project. It will echo the site’s history as a seaside resort while serving as a test case for future development. The hope is that over time, the building will continue to increase access and awareness of the neighborhood and its history through ongoing cultural tourism.

Usonia 21: Applying Design to Social Issues

Students, along with faculty advisors, will design and build the home on their campus at Arcosanti, Arizona. The structure will be designed so as to be disassembled and flat-packed before being driven on a 2,200 mile journey to Billy Freeman’s plot at Seabreeze. Once onsite, students will reassemble and install the structure as part of a neighborhood design charette. During the installation period, students will be able to talk to and learn from current residents and the families with ancestral ties to this land.

Alongside this physical building, an augmented reality-enabled immersive storytelling experience will resurrect the heyday of Seabreeze. By using cutting edge digital design and surveying tools—Unity Augmented Reality (AR) and GIS, as well as narrated oral histories, field recordings, interviews, and recollections from the Freeman family, the project provides a multi-dimensional experience of a place that anyone can plug into. The project aims to create a new type of monument that connects our past to our present. From living rooms to classrooms across the globe, audiences can access the story without the necessity of being at the site.

This augmented reality not only allows us to experience and celebrate the past, but to also envision a collective future. Using these powerful design technologies that engender participatory urbanism, designers can collaborate to develop a reusable model for community revival. The School envisions Seabreeze Bop City to be the first in a series to take the School’s ethos of learning-by-doing and applying it to current issues of social inequities, systemic racism, and the current housing crisis. The Usonia 21 Program will continue to shine a spotlight on disenfranchised communities and engage students in collaboration to design non-traditional solutions that challenge social inequity, and reimagine a future that is open, beautiful, sustainable, and above all, just.

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