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Uplifting a Community by Improving its Environment

For University of South Florida Professor, Christian Wells, PhD, the health and wellbeing of a community is tied directly to the health of the environment around it. It’s that belief that influences Wells’ work and has led to a productive partnership with a Tampa-area nonprofit transforming an in-need community right in USF’s backyard.

Since late-2016, Wells, along with graduate and undergraduate students from USF, have been working in conjunction with the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC). The UACDC is a public/private partnership focused on the redevelopment and sustainability of at-risk areas surrounding the USF Tampa campus.

“Our group looks at the relationship between environmental health and human health – and how if you improve the health of the environment, you improve people’s health,” said Wells, an AAAS Fellow and director of USF’s Center for Brownfield Research and Redevelopment. “Because our program is a very applied program, we’re constantly working with community partners and this project represented a good opportunity for USF students to help improve an area around our university.”

Much of Wells’ research focuses on the study and redevelopment of brownfield land – a key component of the UACDC’s revitalization efforts. Brownfields are former industrial or commercial sites currently vacant due to real or perceived environmental contamination. These areas of blight can greatly impact a community’s chances for investment and when redeveloped can help create jobs, expand the tax base and revitalize local economies.

That’s the UACDC’s hope for the community they’re working in; develop these brownfields and help the overall community flourish. The organization identified an abandoned seven-acre site, just a few blocks northwest of campus, they felt could serve as the catalyst for their community-wide efforts.

Christian Wells at Harvest Hope Park

University of South Florida Professor of Anthropology, Christian Wells, PhD, at University Area Harvest Hope Park.

Thanks to an Environmental Protection Agency grant, Wells and his USF team assisted the UACDC with much of the research and assessment efforts needed to develop a report and implementation plan for the site. From 2017-2019, USF students and researchers conducted a variety community needs surveys, engagement events, economic studies and environmental impact analyses to determine the potential for cleanup and redevelopment of the site.

Through their work, the once abandoned parcel of land has now been transformed into Harvest Hope Park, a gathering site for the area featuring a multi-purpose sports field, fishing docks as well as a community center and garden. The UACDC has planned a grand opening celebration for Nov. 21 from 3-5 p.m. at the park, located at 14013 North 22nd Street.

“In partnership with USF’s Center for Brownfields Research and Redevelopment, we were able to secure an EPA grant that allowed us to assess stigmatized properties in the University Area community, that otherwise would have been ignored during redevelopment efforts,” said Sarah Combs, executive director and CEO of the University Area CDC. “Through this partnership we were able to create a project, like Harvest Hope Park, that improves the health of the community by identifying properties that need to be cleaned up and sustainably redeveloped, and actively participate in the economic growth of the University Area redevelopment process.”

“It’s been truly rewarding to see how our involvement in the community has helped uplift it,” Wells said. “As a public university, we have to have a responsibility to be leaders in our community, because you cannot have a strong community without a strong university.”

While their work at the catalyst site has wrapped up, USF researchers are not finished with their efforts. Additional grant funding is giving even more students the chance to work on this brownfield redevelopment project. By continuing their work with the UACDC, student researchers will soon begin research and assessment efforts at even more sites in the University-Area community. Wells hopes the partnership will continue for many years to come, not only providing students with valuable experience but helping uplift communities in the heart of USF.