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Roadmap to Green

UO’s sustainability program bypasses Eugene
Robert Liberty. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

The city of Eugene has yet to participate in the UO’s ultimate “town and gown” collaboration on sustainability, but Springfield has jumped on it with enthusiasm.

The UO’s Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) is getting positive attention from The New York Times and Forbes magazine. Numerous universities around the country, and as far away as China and New Zealand, are interested in replicating what the UO has created, and the program is attracting both students and faculty to UO.

In a nutshell, the SCYP contracts with one Oregon city each school year and hundreds of UO students, grad students and faculty descend upon that city to work with city staff on a dozen or more specific projects involving sustainability.

Springfield cobbled together the $230,000 cost for the 2011-12 school year, using a mix of public and nonprofit funding sources. Salem did it the year before, and Gresham did the inaugural program in 2009-10.

The Jan. 31 deadline for applications passed with Eugene not applying for the second year in a row. Why would Eugene, with a national reputation for sustainability initiatives, not take advantage of an award-winning local program touted in Forbes as “addressing and catalyzing change across all issues that impinge on sustainability”?

“We’ve decided not to apply this year,” says Babe O’Sullivan, sustainability liaison in the city manager’s office, citing the city’s long-established, broad-based working relationship with the UO, the high cost of the program ($250,000 this year), the city’s list of sustainability projects already completed or under way, and the extra burden on city staff. “It didn’t seem to fit with the way we are doing our work, the time frames and the pace with which we are doing our work,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of stored-up projects that we’ve been waiting to do.”

O’Sullivan says the city is talking to Chris Jones, program manager of the UO’s Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI), which oversees SCYP, about Eugene possibly participating in a scaled-down version of the program, this year or next.

Jones says Eugene was well positioned to apply this year “because Eugene has a number of plans that are either recently passed or soon to be completed: the Eugene Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan, Envision Eugene, Climate and Energy Action Plan — plans that have been in the works for a couple of years now.” Jones says the next crucial step for cities is trying to figure out how to implement these plans, “and that’s where the students can fit in best. They are poised to do great things if they chose to.”

Robert Liberty, executive director of SCI, says he’s impressed with the multiple and diverse ways the UO and city of Eugene have collaborated over the years to their mutual benefit. “The city’s been very supportive,” he says.

But is the city doing enough and planning enough to be truly sustainable? “I applaud the positive moves toward sustainability planning in Eugene,” says Kevin Matthews of Friends of Eugene (FoE). “When we drill down to the details, however, I’m not sure that we’re really living up to our community’s potential.” 

Matthews, who is also editor of ArchitectureWeek, says the Climate and Energy Action Plan “fails to address whether its actions, even if fully accomplished, would add up to meet our stated targets. In fact, calculations done for FoE suggest that the concrete actions listed in the plan are barely enough to get us halfway there, even at 2030.” 

“There are many other areas where our aspirations and our actions may not be matching up,” says Matthews, “from a lack of substantive grappling with climate factors in Envision Eugene and other current planning projects to a failure of the city to enforce its own green building standards when signing long-term leases for new office space.”

Matthews says the city has accomplished “a lot of largely aspirational and qualitative sustainability planning work so far. It is time now, if not earlier, to bear down and start balancing the real numbers — on things like growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) over time — in order to actually achieve real community outcomes. If that’s something the SCYP would help Eugene deal with, then at $250,000 it would be a bargain.”

Shawn Boles of the Sustainability Commission is also skeptical of the idea that the city is already doing plenty of sustainability work and cannot afford to do more. “This rationale sounded thin to me,” he says, “and I asked for a list of city/UO projects. Have not heard back about this.”

 

The decision process

The decision on whether to apply for SCYP was made by city staff, rather than through the Eugene Sustainability Commission (ESC) or the City Council. But councilors, commissioners and Mayor Kitty Piercy were aware of the opportunity, even if not included directly in the decision. 

“The SCY proposal was not vetted through the Sustainability Commission this year or any of the last three years,” says Jan Bohman, city community relations director. “The commission did not identify it as a priority in their annual work planning and it has not been discussed between the commission and City Council in work plan discussions.” Bohman did say at least one member of the ESC encouraged the staff to apply, and city staff told commissioners about the decision at the ESC meeting Jan. 18. “Some commissioners expressed an interest in seeing reconsideration in the future when resources are available to support city participation,” says Bohman.

Mayor Piercy defends the decision, saying “We love the SCYP at UO and have supported and encouraged it from the get-go. ... We have been partnering with them across many disciplines for years and all the more so in my tenure — with LCC as well. We are most fortunate to have such good partners here with us locally where we infuse sustainability work into all we do. I’m not saying we are perfect at all, but we are embracing this in a very full way.”

Piercy and Bohman cite examples of green city/UO collaborations including the Courthouse Garden on city land, the “greenest ever” Olympic Track & Field Trials, the HUD Lane Livability grant in support of sustainable communities, UO faculty involvement in both the Mayor’s Sustainable Business Initiative and the Sustainability Commission, and dozens of others.

The city is also working on a basket of its own sustainability projects, such as the Climate and Energy Action Plan, Zero Waste Project, Green Building program, Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan and Envision Eugene. “We feel it would be a better use of time and resources to continue to focus our efforts on these initiatives that already have a great deal of community support,” says Bohman, “rather than starting a number of new projects in one year as called for by the SCYP model.”

Jones says for a program to be successful, it needs to be “supported and originated at the highest levels of the city government. In Gresham, Salem and Springfield it came from the city manager’s office, and had the strong support of the city councils. If you don’t have those things, the program really can’t run.”

 

Salem’s experience 

Salem chose projects that were “closely tied to City Council goals so the students could move those projects forward,” says Jones. “Now the staff are following up on the student recommendations to take the next steps.” Those projects included a north downtown waterfront redevelopment, conceptual designs for a new police station and civic center, downtown parks connectivity and bike paths, natural area restoration and improved civic engagement with the Latino community and other groups. 

Close to 600 UO and PSU students from 10 academic disciplines put in some 80,000 hours to make their recommendations. The police station design project alone involved 24 students and two architectural firms. UO students majoring in product design worked on improved street lighting in parks.

The Salem SCYP got the attention of The New York Times in a story by Michael Burnham (Aug. 23, 2010). UO architecture professor Nico Larco is quoted saying, “Sustainability is something we have to pay attention to. … We’re starting to see ‘green’ translate not only into environmental and human health but also into business and dollars.”

Salem’s Statesman Journal newspaper did a series of about 15 stories about the Salem SCYP, and those stories and others can be found at sci.org.edu/press

 

Springfield’s experience

Springfield also picked projects linked to council goals. Projects this year include redevelopment of the 11-acre Waremart property in the Mohawk area with its 40,000 sq. ft. building that has been empty for about 10 years. Redevelopment of the site is considered a catalyst for the economic health of the area. Students in architecture, landscape architecture, transportation, urban planning, public relations, law, business and other disciplines are crafting proposals with the help and guidance of city staff, UO professors and even practicing architects and other professionals in the community. Waremart property owner Steven Yett is heavily involved in working with students on the project.

Congressman Peter DeFazio kicked off Springfield’s SCYP back in September, saying the collaboration will bring residents, faculty, students and other strategic partners “to develop new approaches to projects involving bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning, redevelopment for some of the city’s commercial and industrial sites, and preservation of the historic Dorris Ranch. I am looking forward to seeing the results of the students’ work.”

Piercy also lauds Springfield’s SCYP, saying “We’re thrilled that Springfield is doing the SCYP program. They’ve been so wary and now they are fully engaged. They have much to be proud of. Smaller communities around us are doing great things, too.” 

“I’ve been totally happy with SCI,” says former Eugene city manager Vicki Elmer, who is lead professor in UO’s Oregon Leadership in Sustainability graduate program and involved in the Springfield year. “It is always a challenge to get a good local client who will spend the time.” She says Courtney Griesel, Springfield’s management analyst in the city manager’s office, is “amazing” and “awesome,” and “she is totally committed to sustainability and getting us everything we need to do class prep.” 

 

How students benefit

EW talked to two students involved in SCYP, Hiroshi Kaneko of Portland and Lauren Schwartz of Ashland. Both were drawn to the program because of its interdisciplinary scope and its practical applications in the “real world” of work. 

“It’s been tremendous,” says Kaneko, an architecture student. “I like what they are doing, bridging education with the community,” he says. “Not all academics can be applied to real world situations.” 

Schwartz is an MBA candidate, a student in landscape architecture and graduate teaching fellow with SCI. Her involvement in the first SCYP in Gresham involved plans for an economically depressed neighborhood. She says her experience inspired her to pursue an MBA in sustainable business practices. Last year in the Salem SCYP she worked on a proposal to partner Salem, which has excess wastewater treatment capacity, with SeQuential Biofuels, which has excess waste from processing restaurant grease into biofuels. The sludge can be “digested” to generate power from methane gas. 

Why use students in city projects, other than the practical experience they gain? “Cities benefit because they don’t have a lot of money available for redesigning parks, playgrounds, downtown areas, empty storefronts, parking lots, empty buildings,” says Chris Jones. “So for a little bit of money, comparatively speaking, they get 400 really bright students descending on their town to help them come up with ideas, plans and proposals.”

Jones says the student ideas are “vetted with the help of professors, city staff and other professionals and partners. We encourage the city staff and professionals to put some boundaries on the student work, but not too much.” Jones adds that “students can explore a much wider range of alternatives than city staff typically can.”

 

What is the future?

Is the UO’s ground-breaking sustainability program in itself sustainable? Robert Liberty says it was difficult for Gresham, Salem and Springfield to come up with the money to participate in the SCYP, and “since then the fiscal outlook has worsened. What was hard then has become even tougher today. Hence, some cities have sent us their regrets, despite their desire to participate.”

Liberty says the $250,000 cost of the program covers the mostly part-time salaries and administrative costs associated with managing such a large program involving hundreds of undergraduate and grad students. The cost next year also includes an independent evaluation of the program to make sure it is operating efficiently. 

Liberty says he’s had some encouraging conversations with staff at two cities in the Portland area. “We might have to adapt our one-city partnership model a bit (or not) to make it work,” he says, “but I am hopeful and determined that our program will continue in the next academic year.” 

Looking ahead, Liberty says the program will need some supplementary funding, “probably philanthropic funding,” to help bring the cost of participation down. “We believe it is important for the city to care enough to commit both money and staff time,” he says. “It would be great if we could cover two-thirds to one-half of the costs from other sources, so that smaller, less affluent communities, like Coos Bay or Klamath Falls, could participate if they wanted to.”

Meanwhile, free workshops at UO are being planned in April and June to accommodate out-of-state and out-of-country university faculty and others who want to learn how they might replicate SCYP in their own cities.

More information on SCI and SCYP can be found at sci.org.edu 

 

 

 

 

Irreplaceable Nature

Architect Timothy Beatley drew big crowds on the UO campus in mid-January with a film and lecture about nature in our cities. Beatley is a UO graduate and the Theresa Heinz professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia. He is known internationally through his books, the latest published in 2011 by Island Press called Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning. Shelley Deadmond, a graduate student in a new program called OLIS, Oregon Leadership in Sustainability, reviews Beatley’s book for EW.

My earliest memories of interacting with the natural world date back to when I was about 4 years old when my older brother and I would catch and collect frogs in a five-gallon bucket until dinnertime. My parents’ semi-rural home in Northern California was abundant with the inch-long hoppers after wet springs created prime breeding grounds. When dinner was ready, we’d do a final count, then set them free and run inside to wash up before eating.

These are the types of memories Timothy Beatley suggests everyone should have, regardless of where they live, in his newest book Biophilic Cities. Beatley wants to expand the discussion beyond buildings and sites to biophilia, or abundant nature, at the city scale.

“Biophilic cities place the focus squarely on the nature, on the presence and celebrations of the actual green features, life-forms and processes with which we as a species have so intimately coevolved,” he writes.

Because of its local focus, a biophilic perspective will mean different things depending on location. Natural histories and site-specific abundances vary greatly by place but are of crucial importance to a city that thrives with life of all kinds, not just humans. Beatley argues that the extent to which nature is regarded as ancillary in some modern urban cities is nearly criminal. He cites Richard Louv’s notion of American children having what he terms “nature deficit disorder,” where the only remedy is to go outside.

The basic argument is that close-proximity access to natural and wild spaces is essential at all times. Understanding that this will depend on a city’s physical conditions, infrastructure, and governance priorities, Beatley gives compelling examples of ways in which cities have made some aspects of biophilia the focus of a given initiative, neighborhood or building.

The not so subtle assertion that nature is God will likely be the books’ main criticism. Beatley does everything but say it. Nature is his religion and he’s preaching far and wide. He’s not alone. An ever-growing choir recognizes the ecological horrors of the past 150 or so years and is actively seeking a less harmful means for living on the planet.

Garnering social capital, working within and reforming current governmental policies and the investment of money and time are the main challenges a biophilic endeavor will face. Beatley doesn’t give any solid methods for approaching these challenges but rather encourages readers by giving examples of why these will be changes worth fighting for.

Beatley clearly demonstrates his understanding of the creative power of thought; we manifest that to which we give value, and so he asks for a re-valuing of ourselves and thus the physical places were we live. He pleads page by page for his reader to agree that nature must be considered vital, primary, irreplaceable.