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Architects of Hope

OU Institute for Quality Communities

Feature Story

Architects of Hope

See how students from the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture used their expertise to transform Muskogee's downtown.


Shawn Schaefer, director of the University of Oklahoma Tulsa Urban Design Studio paused thoughtfully, thinking back on the work OU students did to provide the city of Muskogee with a plan to rejuvenate their downtown. After nearly a year of researching and designing, what would it take to feel like the project was a success for the city?


In 2016, the OU College of Architecture’s Urban Design Studio and Institute for Quality Communities collaborated on a massive project to improve Muskogee’s downtown and nearby districts. More than 40 students from different disciplines within the College of Architecture worked across two semesters to produce a comprehensive plan with quick and innovative cost-saving fixes and big, long-term goals to revitalize the city.


“Downtown Muskogee used to be a really vibrant place, but now its struggling like a lot of towns outside of metro areas,” said Shawn. When the teams from OU began the project, empty storefronts and damaged buildings stood vacant on what used to be a lively street. Nearby districts felt disjointed and disconnected. A mall at the edge of downtown had lost several anchor stores and was isolated by an oversized parking lot.

Downtown Muskogee

Muskogee wanted a master plan to transform their downtown into the heart of the their community, but they needed something less tangible  to drive the project from conception to reality. They needed hope.

Dr. Chan Hellman, an OU professor attended a steering committee in Muskogee to talk about his research on hope and it’s ability to drive progress and help communities achieve their goals. He explained how hope improves coping skills,promotes adaptive behavior, and can even enhance relationships. Hopeful communities can sustain the mental energy it takes to identify pathways to achieve ambitious goals. For a city project this large, the OU teams tapped into the psychology of collective hope as a motivational force to sustain the plan.


"We took hope seriously," said Rachel Ware, an OU alumna who worked on the project.

OU Student Rachel Ware

Rachel was a graduate assistant at the IQC and worked on the project while earning her masters in landscape architecture. “As designers, people can tell us their ideas and we’re able to create graphics, so that they can actually visualize what that future might look like.”

The project began with the OU teams going on site visits and engaging the community. They held a collaborative meeting that attracted more than 100 people, where community members could give suggestions, offer feedback, and get hands on with models of their city.

“The people in the city were excited about the future,” Said Shane, Executive Director of the OU Institute for Quality Communities. “Spending that first semester absorbing information about the community was the most valuable part of our process. Understanding what their resources are and what they’re excited about helped us unlock the potential that was already there.”

Once they understood the community’s needs and ideas, students used hope as an aspirational theme in their designs, creating plans that were ambitious, but also feasible. Their beautiful renderings brought to life a a future downtown Muskogee bustling with activity, lined with preserved historic buildings and greenspaces.

“The best ideas for me were the ones that weren’t costly, but just took a different pair of eyes to see,” said Wren, former Mayor of Muskogee and chair of the steering committee for the project. “I think the community really appreciated the practical things that ultimately made a big difference.”

Attention to design like this can change the way communities interact with each other and the environment around them. Making a place more accessible and inviting can be the difference between bringing people together or isolating them entirely.

“People don’t recognize good design when it’s done well,” said Rachel, commenting on the impact small changes in design can have on a community. “Everything outside of your home is landscape architecture; from the design of things that are obvious like landscaping and gardening but also streetscape, sidewalk, public spaces. These spaces require thought and attention.”


Renovations in the plan included making important connecting roads more visible and attractive, adding planters to the sidewalks, and moving parking off the main street to highlight store fronts. Small, inexpensive fixes like these became stepping stones for bigger projects, making them seem all the more attainable.

A surprising spark of hope for the community was the premiere opening of Mary Poppins in the brand new Muskogee Little Theater in Downtown.

The sold out performances, which started in the middle of the OU’s work in the community, brought awakened a sense of energy and pride. Wren, the former Mayor, even performed as part of the cast. “She was great too!” said Shawn, recalling the excitement of the play.

Despite fears and insecurities about their city, achievements like the opening of the theatre represented an optimistic vision for the future of downtown. “The new theatre was a huge success for the community,” said Shane. “Looking at what mechanisms made it possible provided insights as to how pieces of our plan could be set into motion.”

The city council formally adopted the plan in July 2017.

Depot District Rendering

When the plan, titled Downtown Muskogee: A Landscape of Hope, was finally finished at the end of the second semester, it was formally adopted by the city council in July 2017. A grant program was established to create a pathway to begin implementing recommendations. Since then, portions of the plan have been implemented and new developments are in the works.

“I just got notified today that we got foundation funding to go toward the depot gathering place in the plan,” Wren said. “When one good thing happens, you can start leveraging to make other good things happen.” Plans are also moving forward to move the post office into the mall and renovate some of the vacant buildings.

This progress is beginning instill hope and confidence in the residents of Muskogee.

Downtown Muskogee has always had potential, it just took a little hope to realize it. By using their expertise, skills, and a little bit of hope, the teams from the OU College of Architecture helped the community of Muskogee chart a roadmap to unlocking that potential.