UO students lead the way on sustainable urban development
The university’s applied sustainability think-tank, the Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI), is harnessing the ambition of students and the knowledge of faculty members to help promote sustainable urban development and lead the global initiative to fight climate change.
Founded in 2007, SCI promotes education, service, public outreach and research on the design and development of sustainable city infrastructure, such as developing bikeways and improving pedestrian mobility. It also serves as the umbrella group for a variety of other projects that work to develop said sustainable cities.
SCI’s most prominent program, the Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP), partners an Oregon city seeking sustainable and innovative ideas for development with university members across multiple disciplines. Students and faculty from architecture to planning, public policy and management collaborate with city staff and elected officials to complete city-designated projects and provide creative proposals for sustainable development.
Dr. Marc Schlossberg, co-director of SCI and a Planning, Public Policy and Management professor, encourages students to realize the potential of bikeways and public transportation in cities through his work with the initiative. Schlossberg explains that incorporating students in the development and planning process takes pressure away from city planners, who often avoid taking risks due to the nature of local politics.
Removing this risk allows for the exploration and experimentation of new ideas, Schlossberg says. Because students are still learning, they have unique perspectives to propose bold solutions.
“Students are able to find this sweet spot between realistic approaches for the community and a sense of utopian idealism,” Schlossberg said.
Schlossberg explained that SCYP benefits not only the city involved with the program, but also students and the community in general. This year, the program partnered with the city of Albany.
“SCYP connects students with tangible projects which count as real work experience,” he said, “as well as addressing critical societal issues around sustainability, climate change and efficiently using taxpayer dollars.”
Mikailia McNeill, a graduate student who participated in this year’s SCYP project, says the experience of breaking the mold of the traditional classroom benefits students who seek a more practical and applied education. McNeill explains that the work done in her SCYP-affiliated class was much more than busy work.
“This program allows you to be in a class, but also gain real life work experience. The deadlines are real, and your work impacts more than yourself,” she said. “This is how I see real life work experience, hopefully in this field, your work will always be affecting more people than yourself.”
At the end of the year, students from twenty classes representing more than ten disciplines logged roughly 40,000 hours into more than 20 different projects, ranging from architecture and design to economic planning.
In June, students and faculty presented their projects to Albany’s citizens, city staff and elected officials. Now, it is up to the city to choose which projects to implement.
According to Ed Hodney, Albany’s Park and Recreation director, the SCYP energized the city staff. Hodney says that students have the time, creativity and drive to do what city planners wanted to do, but could not.
“With SCYP, we got many hours from students that generated tons of ideas which would not be generated by city staff due to the lack of enough time or resources to do the required critical thinking.”
Next year the sustainability program will take on its largest project yet: partnering with TriMet, Portland’s public transportation agency. SCYP will work with TriMet on dozens of projects aimed at expanding Southwest Portland’s public transportation infrastructure from its transit system to pedestrian crossings.
Initially, the program was known as “the Oregon Model,” a reference to its roots at the university. But since its inception in 2009, other universities across the country and overseas expressed a great deal of interest in model, and ultimately, adopted and integrated it into their institutions.
This group of universities that use the “Oregon model,” comprise the Educational Partnerships for Innovation Communities-Network (EPIC-N). Together, they represent dozens of states and over 30 universities spanning from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Chico, California.
Schlossberg explained the reasons behind EPIC-N’s success boil down to common traits present at every university: there are students who desire to change the world by applying what they learned in classes, and communities have problems without the tools to solve them. The EPIC-N provides a model for universities across the country to deploy passionate students into communities looking for a helping hand.
The nationwide success and replicable nature of the program’s framework attracted the attention of federal organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which specializes in researching sustainability. Like the cities involved with EPIC-N, the agency lacked the mechanisms required to translate policy into practice. The EPA came to the same conclusion as many city planners: students are the bridge between research and application.
After EPIC-N’s recognition at the national level, sustainability movements within larger global organizations such as the United Nations became interested in testing the model in developing economies, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to climate change. By collaborating with the EPIC-N, countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America are working to implement sustainable framework within their cities.
Barney Dickson is the head of the Climate Change Adaptation Program, a sustainability movement within the United Nations Environment Program. Dickson says the EPIC-N model could be a game changer for fighting climate change in developing countries.
“Extending the EPIC-N model to other parts of the world is an invaluable initiative that can help cities address the challenge of building resilience to climate change,” Dickson said.
Given the differences between regions’ geopolitical situations, it was unknown if the EPIC-N model would be applicable in other countries. Knowing that these countries operate under different circumstances, Schlossberg headed to Bonn, Germany in May with an open mind for the EPIC-N’s first international workshop.
Schlossberg and 18 pairs composed of university and city representatives from various developing countries met to discuss the EPIC-N. Despite Schlossberg’s initial uncertainty, the pairs were enthusiastic when it came to implementing the EPIC-N framework and the universal nature of the program became evident again.
According to Sean O’Donoghue, the manager of the climate protection branch of the environment department in Durban, South Africa, the results shown from the Bonn workshop are promising for developing nations in Africa.
“The EPIC-N approach will appeal to the partnership between African universities and cities because it’s the most affordable way to drive collaboration between departments and creating innovative ideas,” O’Donoghue said. “Pooling the available capability of African universities will help to fight climate change.”
As a response to the enthusiasm shown in Bonn, there are three follow-up workshops planned in South Africa, the Philippines and Ecuador.
While the international political dialogue around climate change will continue, the EPIC-N’s community-based initiatives provide a sustainable path forward for both Albany and Africa.
In Schlossberg’s eyes, students are taking the initiative to provide a better future.
“The EPIC-N framework harnesses existing resources to bring value for community, students and faculty,” he said. “Students are the mechanism for cities and universities to interact in a robust and fairly large-scale way.”