Chris McDowell: Environmental Everyman

By: Zoe Brawner

Chris McDowell has had an interest in building since he was boy.  As a child McDowell would play with Lincoln Logs and building blocks.

“I was always fascinated with building so I would play with dirt and build stuff. I was into organizing kind of out doors stuff like rock piles.”

Chris McDowell is an environmental everyman. Motivated by training, literature and music, McDowell is building his part of the world with materials others have left behind.

As the director of the University of Georgia Material Reuse Program, McDowell is no longer building structures out of Lincoln Logs or building blocks. Today McDowell uses reclaim and found materials meaning materials you can find in a dumpster, somebody’s trash pile, or materials that are simply not being used.

Their mission is to divert construction and demolition waste from sites on the UGA campus and within the Athens region and actively reuse these “waste” materials on community-based and student projects, according to McDowell’s Material Reuse Program website. And that is exactly what McDowell does. There is no hiding McDowell’s ambitious work scope for his projects. McDowell has completed two dozen or so projects since starting this program and currently has several projects in the works all benefiting the community.

McDowell is just starting his most recent project where he is building a giant pavilion for the Athens Clarke County Recycling department. The ACC Recycling division has a composting facility where McDowell plans to build a teaching pavilion for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade.

“I’m building a teaching pavilion but also a site around it that uses waste water and you know there is probably going to be a rain guard in there or something like that and seating. So that’s going to be around 1500 square feet. We might build a green roof on it.

McDowell received his Bachelors degree in Urban Planning from the University of Cincinnati and his Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Georgia. Hence why McDowell wanted to build this teaching pavilion this way so kids can see the different types of environmental design. It is important to McDowell that they don’t just plop down a building in the middle of nowhere and leave it at that.

“I got into environmental design because I feel like designers can make a difference in peoples lives with connecting man with nature but in a sensible way not in a ludicrous way, McDowell said. “So that’s why as a landscape architect I do what I do. We are trying to bridge the connection between nature and the built environment.”

The Control of Nature by John McPhee is one of McDowell’s favorite novels he recommends to others to read. McPhee focuses on environmental problems in different parts of the country where man has attempted to control nature.

“His book was very powerful and a book that is very important to me.”

As an environmental designer, McDowell expressed the importance of building with nature and not against it or on top of it.

While talking to McDowell it was apparent that McDowell is down to earth man and a relatable human being to many. McDowell is not only a handy man but he is also a musician. McDowell started to play the drums when he was ten years old to recently about five years ago.

“I play drums so I like anything with a beat honestly. I listen to everything. I listen to jazz I like hip-hop you know I’m into pretty much anything that’s not like Justin Beiber. I like a lot of old class country like Hank Williams or Wailin Jennys.”

He even played for his church. Raised in a Presbyterian church McDowell thinks religion is important for communities. “It keeps people together and it is very family oriented” McDowell said.

Due to the fact that McDowell has lived in cities his whole life when McDowell moved to Athens he realized how much he enjoys being outside and working with others.

“I like working in rural areas and I think I would like to actually live in a rural area. Sometimes I think about getting a piece of property and building my house out in a rural area because its just nice to be away from all the clutter and all the nonsense that goes on in a larger area.”

Athens has been good to McDowell because it is a big enough city but he can also drive fifteen minutes out and be in the country. “It’s a nice mix here,” McDowell said.

It may seem as though McDowell’s lifestyle is all work and no play but his lifestyle has a balance. On a typical day McDowell likes to start his mornings off right and goes to the Big City Bread Café to get a coffee. If he is lucky enough to have the day off McDowell spends as much time as possible outdoors.  McDowell enjoys eating downtown at the Last Resort and Tlaloc El Mexicano off Chase Street whenever he can. In the evenings McDowell can be found at the Manhattan Bar drinking a Schlitz.

In the future McDowell plans to build his own house deep in the countryside. “I’ve always wanted to build a house out of rammed earth or something like that but I don’t know how it would hold up in this environment where it rains so much” McDowell said.”

I could easily probably build my stuff our of found materials or natural materials.

UGA professor plans for Athens’ future

Local business owners sat around a long conference table covered in city maps to learn about the future transformation of downtown Athens. Professor Jack Crowley sat at the head and watched, with a mentor-like gaze, as a graduate student led the presentation.

Crowley, former Dean of the UGA College of Environmental Design, is the main coordinator of the Downtown Athens Master Plan, a project that maps out a new design of Athens by the year 2030. This includes everything from the creation of new transportation systems to the installation of more green space downtown. The Athens Downtown Development Authority was the first to envision the Master Plan; however, due to a lack of funding from the city, the ADDA handed the project down to Crowley to continue as a public service. Crowley volunteers his own time and talent to the creation of the plan. He is an example of an academic giving back to his community.

Many of UGA’s faculty play an active role in the Athens community through the Office of Public Service and Outreach. Their work spans a range of areas from environmental service projects to youth programs. Crowley is the only professor to work on an Athens improvement project through the ADDA, according to Kathryn Lookofsky, the ADDA Executive Director.

“Athens hasn’t had a new design plan since the 1970’s,” Crowley said. “The market has been on a rise since the crash in 2008, especially in real estate. I realized that downtown Athens needed to start developing again.”

His planning committee consists of UGA’s Master of Environmental Planning and Design graduate students, a program Crowley created himself in 2006.

“These students, some of which already have masters degrees, are very talented, and some have already practiced planning and have come back to school,” Crowley said.

MEPD is a two-year program that teaches skills in planning, design, ecology and research to use towards the development of a community-based project. Crowley created the program after stepping down from his ten-year reign as dean.

The current students in the program work with the Athens-Clarke County government, downtown businesses, and local citizens to improve the day to day usage of downtown Athens. They have been working on the Downtown Athens Master Plan since August and are expecting to complete it by June.

Vivian Foster is in her second year in the program and said she loves her work with the Master Plan project.

“Personally I was excited to be part of something that is practicing the profession before getting a degree and being able to make a real professional document as a grad student,” Foster said. “I think one of the exciting parts is that one day, you will see a new park or new development being used, and I can say that I was part of that. I like that idea.”

Crowley began his own education at the University of Oklahoma, where he gained all three of his degrees and graduated with a PhD in urban geography in 1976. Since then he has had over 40 years of professional experience in urban development and education in both the United States and Latin America.

The professor was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1965 and he stayed in the service until 1969. Despite his military background, Crowley is an easy-going and comical man; however, he does demand a lot of involvement from his graduate students in order for them to obtain real-world experience in urban planning.

“Jack is extremely knowledgeable,” said D.W. Cole, another graduate student in the MEPD program. “There is very little that he does not know about. He communicates very well and always helps us expand on any ideas we have.”

In UGA’s Tanner Building, Crowley and his planning team share their new ideas in monthly meeting with a group of citizens appointed to oversee the development of the Master Plan. Most of the group, known as the Steering Committee, are local business and property owners.  The atmosphere within the room is light but professional. The Steering Committee members are quick to criticize any plan they feel would discourage the growth of their business.

Crowley created the Steering Committee based on his ethical commitment to address the needs of the public. He began with a public meeting last November, which gave all Athens residents the chance to offer their own ideas about what they would like to see in the plan. The main issues voiced were fixing up the sidewalks, making the city more walk-able and bike-able, creating more transportation options and opening up downtown access to the river.

Another Town Hall meeting will be conducted for all Athens citizens within the next month to gain the locals’ opinions on the projects they have come up with, based off of the ideas from the first meeting.

“Nothing is completely set in stone because we don’t know what the world will be like in 2030,” Crowley said. “Who knows we could have Segway tours of Athens by then. I will say, though, that until we see a better idea, this is the way we are going so that there is no conflict that slows the project down. That is why we are getting so much input from the public in the forefront of the plan.”