Urban Explorers

Two globe-trotting Rollins grads are setting out to document how cultures in Southeast Asia approach development in their cities.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Sometimes, inspiration strikes just by walking down the street. Other times, the inspiration is the street itself.

When Courtney Banker ’16 spent a semester in Vietnam her junior year, she became fascinated with the country’s fluid, multidimensional urban landscape.

“The use of the street in Vietnam, for instance, is different than in America,” says Banker, a Tampa native and former president of EcoRollins. “In the U.S., we have a very specific idea of how that space is supposed to be used—mostly for cars and maybe a bike lane or sidewalk with a building on the side. In Vietnam, there’s a paved area where there might be a noodle shop in the morning but in the evening it’s a play space or a different kind of cafe. It’s amazing how a street can undergo a complete metamorphosis in the course of an hour and still provide mobility through the neighborhood.”

In March, Banker and Andrew Lesmes ’15, will embark on a months-long journey to Southeast Asia, starting in Vietnam, to document how other cultures approach the built environment. Their website, The Homage Project, will share alternatives to auto-oriented development in the hope that American communities can adopt more equitable and sustainable urban design strategies.

“Courtney’s a great writer, and I’ve been doing photography for quite a while,” says Lesmes, who grew up in Lake Mary and founded Rollins’ student-run garden. “This venture lends itself quite nicely to this digital meeting of photography and journalism.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Responsible Leadership

For Banker and Lesmes, both of whom majored in environmental studies, The Homage Project is more than just a wide-eyed overseas adventure—it’s an extension of the careers they’ve been forging since their days at Rollins.

During her senior year, Banker interned at the city of Winter Park. After graduation, she worked as an outreach specialist at reThink Your Commute (a division of the Florida Department of Transportation) before taking a paid internship in the Facilities Planning Department of Orange County Public Schools.

“One of the things we did was plan where future schools would go,” Banker says. “I worked on a lot of impact-fee studies and got to see just how much our government spends on infrastructure and schools.”

Lesmes interned at Canin Associates, an urban planning firm in downtown Orlando, where he focused on Orange County’s high-density zoning and long-term road management. In November 2016, he became assistant project manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, working out of Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka. His district was the state’s largest, stretching from Duval County to Sebastian Inlet.

“I mostly did field work and code compliance at the parks,” Lesmes says. “I also handled improvement, restoration, and construction projects, as well as shoreline restoration after Hurricanes Irma and Matthew.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Global Citizens

Quitting their jobs to trek halfway around the globe comes with a degree of risk and uncertainty, but the duo has been planning the journey for months. And they feel confident about what lies ahead.

“Ever since I went to Vietnam, I’ve had a desire to go back," Banker says. "Plus, Andrew and I still feel this youthful energy in us and want to travel.”

“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure, and it’s all pretty new to us,” Lesmes adds. “We’ve never been in a place where we’re starting and managing a project from scratch. It’s been a very fun, eye-opening experience to work on this together.”

For the first 10 days of their trip, the couple will stay with the same Saigon family who housed Banker during her study-abroad program. From there, it’s on to Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An—a coastal city where Banker did her research project on storm water and wastewater infrastructure—then possibly Laos and Thailand, and maybe even Europe.

In Hanoi, they’ll volunteer at an English-language center in exchange for room and board. “We have limited funds,” Banker says, “but we hope to be able to earn money by applying for grants and writing for magazines that cover urban issues.”

Alternative Sources of Inspiration

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

The Homage Project, which can also be followed on Instagram and LinkedIn, takes its name from “a time that predates cars, when we approached things differently,” Banker says.

Combining blog posts and visual storytelling, the site will examine questions such as: How are other societies approaching the use of space? How are they building their communities differently? And what can we learn from them?

“Practically speaking it’s a catalogue, a compendium of places … a chance for us to go off the beaten path," Lesmes says. "By virtue of us having a flexible itinerary, it should help us find alternative sources of inspiration in small to midsize cities that not everyone has heard about.”

As for what life might hold after The Homage Project—well, like a bustling Vietnamese street, it’s unpredictable.

“All I really know is that for the next year we’ll be invested in this digital project,” Banker says. “Part of me wants to pursue a career in urban planning, but it could also really set me on this journey of doing journalism or maybe making a documentary or writing a book. Either way, Andrew and I will have put together a great portfolio to launch our careers—and we’re thankful that Rollins helped prepare us for this moment.”

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