Advocating for Active Transportation
RISD Maharam Fellow Cornelia Overton MLA 20 is contributing her talents as a summer intern at Walk Bike Nashville.
Tennessee native Cornelia Overton MLA 20 first became interested in urban biking issues while attending high school in Nashville. “I lived in a small rural town a few miles outside the city… and it was pretty darn dangerous to get to school from there by bike,” says the Landscape Architecture grad student. With support from a 2019 Maharam STEAM Fellowship in Applied Art and Design, she’s back in her home state this summer working with the nonprofit Walk Bike Nashville (WB).
Here Overton shares thoughts about how her studies at RISD connect with helping to make Nashville a better place to live.
What inspired you to pursue landscape architecture at RISD?
I’ve always felt a strong connection to the plants and gardens at the house I grew up in, which has been in my family for a long time—with trees that my great-grandmother planted. And after focusing on cultural anthropology and environmental studies at the University of Tennessee, I worked on farms for a few years, so landscape architecture seemed like a good fit—something that would allow me explore my creative impulses while making a large-scale impact.
I had also studied furniture making at the Appalachian Center for Craft [in Cookeville, TN] and became really interested in designing objects. I wasn’t ready to let go of that, so RISD's program seemed really ideal.
What are you doing for Walk Bike Nashville this summer?
I’m creating a guide for their advocate training workshops that I hope can meet the broader purpose of educating young people and those who don’t feel they have a say in how their neighborhoods are changing.
At RISD the Landscape Architecture department really emphasizes graphic clarity, with many of our crits centering around how well we convey information. So I’ve had to learn many of the tools that graphic designers use... and have been using this skillset to support the WB team.
Another major project was Open Streets Nashville, a public event that we partnered with the city on. In addition to graphic design, I created a wayfinding system for it that encouraged people to take in the space while moving through it.
In a blog post about your first day at WB, you wrote that you found yourself in the middle of an intense debate about on-demand bike and scooter safety. Did you have any idea this would be part of your internship?
No, I had no idea, actually. It's a pretty serious issue here right now: there have been several recent accidents (one fatal).
In a studio last fall we studied Baltimore and I became really fascinated by the dirt-biking culture there, so for my final project I designed a system of lanes for midrange-speed vehicles that rewards people for not driving cars in the city. It was serendipitous that I had already been thinking of these issues in a different context before I started the internship.
Why do you think Nashville comes up so often in recent stories about the evolving city and who cities are for?
The city has a huge tourism economy and this mythic country music scene that doesn’t connect with the experiences of most residents. And then there are issues stemming from people moving into what had been poorer neighborhoods near downtown—areas that have changed profoundly over the past 10–15 years.
There’s a lot of contention surrounding how the city is run and how it works, but I do think there’s good that can come from these changes. As progressive energy comes into Nashville, I think more people will demand things like better public transportation, regardless of pushback from the established powers-that-be.
What do you hope to accomplish through your internship experience?
I hope to create a resource that anyone in Nashville can use to learn about the political processes in their own city—something that helps people feel a little more empowered and less in the dark about how to approach those systems.
I’ve also enjoyed talking to people from local NGOs and learning how they think we can be most helpful—because they’re the people who really know.
How will you connect this experience to your final year at RISD and after?
I hope to take away more knowledge of politics and how design fits within that context.
I’m pretty committed to moving back to Nashville to help make it a better place to live. I want to do work that’s socially sensitive and goes toward creating a better world. What I’m doing with WB definitely feeds into that.
—interview by Robert Albanese
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