Designing Orlando’s Future

Alex Peterson ’17 is architecting an environmentally sound urban plan for The City Beautiful.

Alex Peterson ’17 measures water quality in Baldwin Park, a planned community in Orlando that is the focus on his thesis project. Photo by Scott Cook Alex Peterson ’17 measures water quality in Baldwin Park, a planned community in Orlando that is the focus on his thesis project. Photo by Scott Cook

When Alex Peterson ’17 moved to Orlando from Massachusetts as a freshman, he never imagined he might one day rethink the design of his new city. After all, he came to Rollins knowing nothing about urban planning and design. But a town planning class his second year changed all that.

“I thought it was really interesting that urban planning could combine my interest in architecture and design with my interest in pursuing an environmentally related career,” says Peterson, who is majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in urban planning.

For Peterson, that merging of interests has evolved into an award-winning thesis project focused on developing real, on-the-ground solutions to environmental issues in Orlando. Last spring, he was one of only 34 students nationwide to receive the Environmental Protection Agency’s prestigious Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship, which includes an academic scholarship and a three-month summer internship.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Peterson’s thesis project centers on Baldwin Park, a planned community built on the site of a converted naval base that incorporates design features like retention ponds and native plants to help restore the damaged ecosystem. By measuring water quality and analyzing green space, Alex is researching the effectiveness of these features and devising ways to apply the ideas throughout the city.

“Ultimately,” he says, “I’ll have a proposal with visuals and design ideas for how to expand and connect some of the beneficial features of Baldwin Park throughout the downtown Orlando area and eventually well beyond.”

Peterson’s perspective on urban planning wasn’t developed solely in a classroom. He studied in Athens, Greece, as a junior, and this summer he interned at the EPA in Atlanta for his fellowship. During his internship, Peterson toured the Atlanta Beltline, a redevelopment project inspired by a Georgia Tech student’s urban planning thesis.

“It's a massive investment in public space, mass transit, and infill development that's bringing new vitality to some of Atlanta's most neglected and historic neighborhoods,” he explains. “I think it's really incredible that an academic research project could gain the attention of city leaders and developers and actually get built.”

Having the opportunity to compare such a variety of cities—and see a student thesis have a real-world impact—has helped Peterson develop his own vision for Orlando.

“I think it would be nice to see the city invest more in the historic areas and the downtowns and become a much denser city,” he says. “I’d like to see Orlando set growth boundaries and focus growth inward. I think Orlando in 20, 30 years might be very, very different.”

With someone like Alex Peterson involved, there’s no doubt about it.