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Tar Heel of the Week: Sharing a vision of urban living

Tina Govan spent her formative years as an architect in Japan, where she learned to use tiny spaces to great effect, and to incorporate a home’s landscape and community into every design.

For the past 20 years, Govan has applied those same ideals to both the buildings she designs and the city she loves.

In her work as an architect, she often focuses on refurbishing buildings to meet new needs, including her home and one on her street near downtown that was featured on the television show “Renovation Nation.”

On a larger scale, Govan has been active in efforts to engage her fellow residents in considering their urban space in new ways.

She’s been active near her own neighborhood in revitalizing the Person Street corridor, and she has served on a panel that has worked to make Raleigh friendlier to pedestrians. She helped develop one of the city’s first “parklets,” tiny recreational spaces put up temporarily in parking lots. She shares her ideas on urban design, and her experience raising a family downtown, during talks across the state and beyond.

This summer, Govan, 56, has helped organize a series of public forums focused on urban issues from housing to food to transportation. The last of these events will be Saturday at the state office of the American Institutes of America, or AIA, which sponsored the events through its Activate 14 initiative.

The talks were part of an effort to bring the public into discussions of how architecture and design affect their lives – part of a national trend in her profession that Govan has long embraced.

Frank Harmon, a Raleigh architect who has worked with Govan on the summer initiative, says that Govan embodies a renewed focus in the field of architecture on engaging with the public to build sustainable communities.

“So much of what we see today is housing for profit,” says Harman. “It also has another function, though, which is to build community. She’s always interested in finding the seams where she can make a difference.”

The Japanese way

Govan’s father was a university librarian, which led her family to live in several college towns before settling in Chapel Hill, where he was the head librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill for 20 years.

Govan graduated from high school in Chapel Hill and attended UNC-CH for two years before she decided to major in architecture, when she transferred to N.C. State University.

She says she inherited an affinity for art from her mother and found in architecture a way to use it to a practical purpose.

“I could be creative but do something that serves a function,” she says. “I really like that intersection with society and how people use space.”

She joined the Peace Corps out of college, spending two years teaching architecture and math to children in Liberia, where she met her husband.

When she returned, she worked in Chapel Hill before going to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A guest professor there, one of a small portion of those in the field who are female, invited her to work in Japan.

She says working in an exotic locale was fun; she got to build homes with views of Mount Fuji and design outdoor baths. But she also learned a lot of methods that she still uses today.

Some of them are ideas that were unheard of in the United States when she returned but have sense gained some traction, such as involving local artisans in the plans.

The firm in Japan also did extensive studies of the land around the homes they built, including the larger community, to see how the building would fit both aesthetically and in practical terms. And, of course, she learned to think small.

“I got really schooled in how to use small spaces,” she says. “It was also great training for today because they taught me to consider the specialness of every place and to try to uncover that.”

Downtown living advocate

She returned to Boston briefly before she and her husband settled in Raleigh, in a 1,000-square-foot house in the Oakdale community just north of downtown. At the time, the neighborhood that is now full of renovated houses was home to several abandoned properties and very few families.

“It was very lonely,” she says. “I would walk down the street with a stroller and grab anyone I could find to talk to.”

Still, she felt strongly about living downtown. Rather than move to a larger home after her two sons were born, she designed a Japanese-themed addition with flexible spaces that open to a cozy backyard.

Her sons grew up wandering in the neighborhood creek for hours with their friends. As they got older, their playground expanded to downtown itself.

She has remained involved in, and sometimes outspoken about, community issues, from school district policies to the building plans of nearby Peace College.

Sustainability has always been a key part of her practice and personal life – from using reclaimed materials to eschewing the use of a car for most purposes.

Once she joined the AIA, she soon started working on its mission to engage the community with architecture. First, she organized a series of talks focused on different ways of living more efficiently, in smaller spaces.

Then she got involved with Activate 14. The first event was on tactical urbanism, a movement to improve urban areas through small-scale, community-focused efforts. Govan will speak at the final one, which will focus on urban housing.

She says the events are part of a national movement to move architects out of isolation.

“It’s about trying to bring architects out of our sequestered quarters into the public arena, to look at the bigger picture,” she says. “In the past our mistake has been making unique statements, showing just our buildings without context or people.”

Govan says the recent momentum in downtown Raleigh has been gratifying, with more people enjoying the benefits of urban living that she has long advocated.

She worries, however, that downtown growth is moving too quickly, with not enough community participation. She’d like to see more deliberate discussion of how to maintain and foster Raleigh’s unique character, how to make it easier and safer for urban dwellers to walk and ride on the streets, among other issues.

“The place is changing so quickly you will wake up one day and it will be totally transformed,” she says. “But how do we engage the public and come together to discuss these issues that will determine our quality of life?”