Students revitalize community spaces in Russell Heights

November 10, 2023

The Russell Heights community is enjoying a freshly renovated and upgraded community space and playground designed and built by students at the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism (ASAU).


It is the second project by the Architecture Action Lab, led by Assistant Professor Menna Agha, which last year built a community pantry in Centretown in partnership with Ottawa Community Housing.


The Russell Heights project started in the fall of 2022 with community workshops to identify the needs of the residents in the social housing development.


“When we spoke to the community, they said they wanted colour, they wanted the spaces activated, they wanted the spaces expanded,” recalls Dr. Agha. “So, this was the whole premise of our design—we thought about activating this public space to be a place for community making.”


The following students took part: Maddelyn Byrtus, Hassan Hannawi, Andrew Holland, Klariza Juntilla, Alejandra Leon de Gante, Lauren Liebe, Arkoun Merchant, Jhil Mistry, Stephanie Opdebeeck, Muneebah Sheikh, Karen Trivino, and Gerry Raphael-Whyte.


Also involved were alumni Sally El Sayed and Joshua Eckert and faculty members Dr. Agha and Associate Professor Lisa Moffitt.

A group of people building a community pantry

After meeting with Russell Heights community organizers and members, the Action Lab identified that the basketball court and portable, both essential places for the neighbourhood, needed repairs and upgrades.


“I most enjoyed the community nights in Russell Heights,” said Stephanie Opdebeeck, a fourth-year Bachelor of Architecture Studies design student.


“Walking into the community house with all of the mothers ready to share ideas and talk for the evening was extremely impactful,” she said. “It showed how much of a difference we could make in their neighbourhood and how much they cared for a space their children could be safe and have fun in.”


Over the winter, the Action Lab team took what they learned from the community, created designs and drawings, and received approval from the community on their proposal. The ASAU students and Action Lab began building in May.


The main indoor community gathering space was a portable that required significant repairs. The team changed the vents, provided and installed a larger sink and better appliances, and reorganized the layout of the kitchen. The rest of the portable was renovated with a new floor, paint, colourful artwork, and a TV screen for youth movie nights.


In the outdoor space, they painted a colourful mural on the existing basketball court and added a community garden and community planters. At the request of the girls in the community, they put in lines for a volleyball court and installed a portable volleyball net. The students also built a deck, pergola, and outdoor seating area to bridge the indoor and outdoor spaces.

A group of people working on a staircase.
Two people working on a wooden deck.
A colorfully painted basketball court
A group of people standing on a colorfully painted basketball court.

Muneebah Sheikh, a third-year Bachelor of Architecture Studies design student, joined the project in the summer during the building phase. “I helped with some painting, repairing railings, and assembling garden crates,” she said.


 “Witnessing the progress of the project was so exciting, as well as directly seeing the impact it had on the members of the community. While we worked, sometimes people would come out and watch or ask us questions regarding their new space.”


Twelve ASAU students, as well as alumni, faculty, and community members, contributed to the project. Students from the Action Lab took the lead on this project, gaining design-build knowledge and experiencing architecture as a social enterprise.


“The students who end up coming to us at the Action Lab are the ones who want to make a difference,” says Agha. “I think this is amazing for our students and the future of our profession. We open opportunities for architecture as a social enterprise. That means there is the seed of effort of a new way of doing architecture that is planted in them—and it affects how they do architecture in the future.”


The Action Lab will continue to work with the Russell Heights community on part two of the project, which will be an outdoor gym for young people to exercise and release energy.


Last month, the Action Lab held a design workshop for young men and teens to discover what they would like to see in this space. The intention is to begin work in May 2024.


 “We believe that every single kid in Ottawa, no matter where they come from, their economic background, their race or ethnicity, or their status of citizenship, deserve spaces of happiness,” says Agha. “And we’re happy to contribute a little bit towards that.”