Universities nationwide come for UO sustainability program

A University of Oregon program that pairs faculty and students with local cities for sustainability projects has been something of a best-kept secret. But those days might be numbered.

So says Mariah Hudson-Dula, sustainability coordinator at San Diego State University, the latest institution among a half-dozen nationwide to adopt the UO’s Sustainable City Year Program. When Hudson-Dula and Geoff Chase, dean of Undergraduate Studies, learned about the program at a national conference last year, they knew it was right for their university.

“It’s an innovative and impactful program,” Hudson-Dula said. “What really makes it exciting is the way that community engagement is infused into the curriculum.”

Hudson-Dula will join 50 people from 20 universities attending the 2013 Sustainable City Year Conference, April 9-12 on the UO’s Portland and Eugene campuses.

During the conference, universities will learn how to establish the yearlong sustainability program, which is a partnership between professors, students and local cities on municipal projects that boost economies while protecting the environment and quality of life.

Under the UO program, as many as 30 courses across a dozen disciplines are focused on assisting one city each year with its sustainability goals. In a typical year, more than 400 students spend 60,000 hours on projects that enhance livability, conserve resources and generate economic development.

Fast becoming known nationally as “the Oregon model,” the program has been adopted by universities in Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania and California. Interest has been expressed from as far away as Europe, China and the United Arab Emirates.

Hudson-Dula, ’99, said the UO program is promising because it connects courses across a curriculum with applied learning experiences in communities; a pilot program is slated to begin this fall at San Diego State. The UO program is a good fit for her university and its focus as a teaching and research institution that promotes community engagement and public service, she added.

Some sustainability-in-education programs require only that students, in addition to classwork, contribute some form of volunteerism to gain experience. But the UO program places students in a fundamental role as contributors who can influence municipal policies and practices, Hudson-Dula said.

“It’s very exciting for students to have the potential to impact their communities in a positive, physical way,” she added.

The UO program is run by the Sustainable Cities Initiative, a cross-disciplinary organization that supports the design and development of sustainable cities and works to better utilize the existing energy and ability within universities for communities outside the university’s walls. The co-directors are Marc Schlossberg, an associate professor in Planning, Public Policy and Management, and Nico Larco, an associate professor in Architecture. The New York Times called the initiative “perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach” and the 4-year-old program has won national awards.

Attendance is up for the conference, during which there will be reports from universities that have implemented the program, students and faculty who have participated and city officials who have been past partners.

“This workshop is an opportunity for highly engaged, interactive and participatory discussion on techniques for adopting the Sustainable City Year Program at all kinds of universities across the country,” Schlossberg said. “There are some pressing challenges that communities face regarding sustainability, livability, scarce fiscal resources and public health; our universities need to be much more engaged in being part of the solution. It’s time to put the ‘public’ back into public higher education.”

Following a statewide competition, the recent selection of Medford by the UO program initiated the fourth year of the university’s commitment to the sustainability partnership. Medford projects could include community engagement efforts, improving bike access to and from population centers, design proposals for civic buildings, ecological restoration and analyses for economic development and land use.

-- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications