Director of Auburn’s Urban Studio helps communities plan for the future
by Jennifer Cohron
Jan 05, 2014 | 1306 views | 0 0 comments | 116 116 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cheryl Morgan, third from left, talks with Cordova residents at a recent meeting to discuss rebuilding the downtown district that was destroyed by the April 27, 2011, tornadoes. Daily Mountain Eagle - Jennifer Cohron
Cheryl Morgan, third from left, talks with Cordova residents at a recent meeting to discuss rebuilding the downtown district that was destroyed by the April 27, 2011, tornadoes. Daily Mountain Eagle - Jennifer Cohron
slideshow
Cheryl Morgan first came to Auburn University as a student interested in pursuing a career in architecture.

She was pleasantly surprised when one of her professors announced, “We need to tell you today that there are no right answers.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, thank God. I’ve found a place where I am going to be OK.’ One of the things that I knew about myself at that time is that I saw lots of answers to things,” Morgan said.

As the director of Auburn’s Urban Studio, Morgan and the senior architecture and design students she oversees help communities find solutions to their problems.

Morgan was among those who developed a comprehensive plan for Cordova in 2005. The focus at that time was on revitalization.

Morgan returned in the summer of 2011, when the city was in need of a roadmap for rebuilding after being devastated by tornadoes.

Her work was incorporated into a long-term recovery plan adopted by the Cordova City Council in December 2011 and is currently being implemented phase by phase throughout the city.

It was Morgan’s team that recommended realigning Main Street, a project that received federal funding last month.

The group also suggested reorienting the city’s baseball fields, which occurred in 2012, and selected the site upon which a new grocery store will be built in the coming months.

In theory, the grocery store could have gone on a different block or the entire downtown could have been relocated to the interstate.

However, experience has taught Morgan how to discern the best option among several that at first seem to be equally viable.

“Part of the point is not to be creative for creativity’s sake but exploration to confirm that the best of the options is the one that you are pursuing,” she said.

Morgan earned two degrees from Auburn and received a master’s in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Before returning to Auburn in 1992 as a faculty member, Morgan worked in metropolitan areas such as Paris and San Francisco.

The offer from her alma mater came at a time when she was at a crossroads in her career.

“I needed to move into another job or another position at the firm I was in to keep the learning curve going,” Morgan said.

Morgan also had a strong desire to do work that was not only good but also meaningful.

“I looked back at a lot of the things I had been doing in practice, and some of it was impactful, but a lot of it made me feel like the world did not need one more GAP store and I did not need to be part of the world getting one more Gap store,” she said.

Morgan found more than a paycheck at Auburn. She put her talents to use helping community members in Valley, Fairfied, Cordova and other areas engage in the planning processes that shape the future of their respective hometowns.

In addition to heading up the Urban Studio, Morgan co-founded YourTown Alabama, a workshop held each year at Camp McDowell that introduces small town leaders to the importance of design.

The work of a planner is more than a pretty picture and rarely brings instant gratification.

“It’s important to understand that 10 years is a blink of an eye in the life of a city. You have to be patient. You need things that can happen quickly, but you also need to realize there are some things that want yield results for a while, and that’s OK,” Morgan said.

When gauging success, Morgan does not refer to how closely a community followed the details of the comprehensive plan that she helped develop but how reacted to the conceptual framework.

“It’s a roadmap, not a mandate. The illustrations help see one way that might play itself out, but there is no one right answer. It’s the concepts that are important, not the literalness,” she said.