Sustainable Cities Initiative allows Oregon students to provide fresh ideas to city developers

In Salem’s Riverfront Park, the small, yet bright yellow LED lights set the 23-acre recreation area ablaze as dusk begins to fall.

However, these lights are not just placating the concerns of safety activists and watchful joggers, but also the city as it begins a pilot project to install 96 energy-efficient LED lights at the park. The plan for the pilot project, which is estimated to save the city $2,100 in annual energy costs and $25,320 in future maintenance costs, arose from recommendations made by the University’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.@@

The Riverfront project is just one of many that the initiative has aided since it began in fall of 2009. Originally a modest effort by three University professors to assist Oregon communities in tackling sustainability issues, the initiative has now developed into a nationally recognized, award-winning organization with 20 faculty members and 500 students at any given time.

Marc Schlossberg, a Sustainable Cities Initiative co-founder and University planning, public policy and management professor, explained that the main reason the organization was created was to share student ideas (typically saved for the eyes of their instructors) with cities that may be able to use and incorporate them in its planning goals.

“As professors, we get to read so many great projects and final papers that students turn in at the end of the term, and it seems kind of frustrating and a little silly to us that we’re the only ones that get to read the brilliant suggestions that we get from students every year,” Schlossberg said. “We wanted to figure out a way so other people got to see that work and ensure the work got put into practice in our local community.”

Nico Larco, another co-founder and University architecture professor, said the goal of the program is both simple and complex: take a bunch of existing courses on campus — including those in the departments of architecture, business, landscape architecture, public planning, law and journalism — and target them to assist a selected community. The students and faculty members provide ideas, suggestions, and insights into how to address and execute municipal sustainability issues.

“If you’re going to deal with issues of sustainability, you need to work across disciplines,” Larco said. “We’re really interested in applying the work that we do here at the University, so students understand how the work happens outside of the University walls while having a chance to really affect the world around us.”

Currently, the initiative pulls professors and students from 13 different departments. In addition, since the project began nearly three years ago, Schlossberg said the University’s Sustainable Cities program has begun working with Portland State University and has helped the cities of Gresham, Salem and Springfield by conducting about 40 projects in 75 different courses, engaging a total of 1,300 students, and contributing about 200,000 combined hours worth of work in the service of local communities.

“There are many, many examples of a direct correlation between the student work and our current business practices,” City of Salem project manager Courtney Knox said.

She went on to explain that nearly 500 University students from about 25 different courses tackled a variety of issues ranging from civic engagement to waste water treatment methods over the course of a year and presented their findings to the city. Knox said many of these findings, including the installation of energy-efficient lights, are being implemented and strongly considered by city legislators who were satisfied by the ideas presented by University students and faculty members.

“The student work amazed us,” Knox said. “The students far exceeded all of our expectations. We’re still sifting though the many ideas that they provided us, because it was just so extensive. They gave us fresh ideas, they gave our citizens and our staff an opportunity to reexamine our own assets and, as a community, there’s just so much excitement and enthusiasm in Salem right now as a direct result of the student work.”

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