Service learning class designs bike racks for Belle Isle

Chris Suarez
Contributing Writer

After waiting two years, one VCU student will finally achieve his goal of helping the bicyclists of Belle Isle.

The idea of placing more bike racks on Belle Isle was first considered by junior interior design major Taariq Muhammed and members of his Focused Inquiry class during the fall 2012 semester.

Muhammed’s Focused Inquiry class, taught by professor Kirk Richardson, came with the service learning distinction, a title given to classes involved in community engagement. Classes in the English and Business departments carry the Service Learning name, utilizing more than 3,000 students each year working directly to improve Richmond.

Students in Richardson’s class volunteered at Belle Isle and worked directly with the James River Park System to improve the park by removing graffiti, litter and non-indigenous species of plants. The class also placed historical markers on the island.

“In this particular class, they noticed that there was no bike racks,” Richardson said. “In class discussion, we thought what a great way to have something functional, as well as memorial, than to make a bike rack that would do both of those things.”

Muhammed conceived the idea of making an interpretive bike rack to honor the former prisoners of war who were held on Belle Isle during the Civil War. The design of the proposed 12-by-18 foot bike rack would resemble the tents that more than 30,000 Union soldiers were held captive in from 1862 to 1865.

The Civil War-era tents coincidentally resembled Native American teepees. Muhammed and Richardson both said the bike rack design reflects the teepee as a “universal symbol of shelter” and pays homage to the Native Americans who once inhabited the island long before European settlement.

Muhammed said the popularity of biking in Richmond and the lack of bike racks in the park influenced the group’s project.

“First and foremost, because I live here and go to Belle Isle a lot, I felt like it was something that needed to be done,” Muhammed said. “I liked the class so much, the project made me want to continue working on it.”

While the original idea for the class project was formulated during the fall 2012 semester, Richardson said turnover within the James River Park System delayed the project.

“We got hung up because the former park manager, Ralph White, retired a month after he said we could do it,” Richardson said. “It wasn’t until recently that Nathan Burrell, the new park manager, said he could take on the project.”

Shortly after getting the project approved again, Richardson and Muhammed have been busy gathering the support of VCU’s students and faculty. The group has reached out to students within the sculpture department from the School of Arts who could potentially build the bike rack as part of their senior capstone project, Richardson said.

The Office of Community Engagement affirmed their support of the project as well, granting a small endowment to complete the installation.

“It’s really exciting to work on this piece with so many different people,” Muhammed said. “Just to see it come together is really awesome.”

Muhammed and Richardson aim to finish the project by April. The tentative location of the bike rack is next to the bike skills course, directly underneath the Lee Bridge.

“In my opinion, the openness and eagerness which the park service comes with to talk to my class and helps me do these projects is unparalleled,” Richardson said. “I’ve had the greatest experience working with them.”


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