Redmond police chief Dave Tarbet appraised the group of young people, unsure where things were headed. A dozen UO architecture students had just disembarked from a chartered bus for their first meeting with Tarbet, his police department, and Redmond city staff and councilors. The students’ task was to render architectural plans for a new police station in a vacated national armory building—and design it sustainably.
Most of them had no familiarity with Redmond or police facilities and hadn’t worked with flesh-and-blood architecture clients, much less a uniformed squadron. The police chief, not usually involved with design or students, wasn’t sure what to expect either, but he and his department were game for taking part in the Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP). Other officials who had interacted with some of the 28 UO classes unleashed on Redmond had delighted in the presence of students eager to tackle the city’s sustainability issues.
In a reversal of the usual youths-and-cops scenario, students questioned police. “What can you tell us about your police station? How do you organize the physical elements? What do you think about when you think about Redmond?”
The officers’ concerns—pragmatic ones about where to store evidence or put the intake counter—shifted to reflections on what it’s like to work in law enforcement, how that influences social interactions, and what kind of long-term identity they envisioned for their department.
The police chief and many of the officers and staff members at the meeting left that first encounter impressed with the students and eager to see what kind of station they’d design.
“What was exciting,” says Lieutenant Mike Kidwell, “was that they actually asked us what we wanted.”
THAT'S THE POINT, according to Marc Schlossberg, codirector of the Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI), the UO organization that runs SCYP. He notes that there’s a long history of universities researching communities and extracting knowledge from them, but such research doesn’t necessarily benefit its subjects. “Students get brownie points, faculty members get brownie points, and the community is left with nothing.”
Instead, as it has done every year since its inception in 2009, SCYP asks cities to identify existing problems they’d like help with as well as dream projects that the staff and leadership need help bringing to fruition. For the 2015–16 partnership year, SCYP program manager Megan Banks took Redmond’s wish list and played matchmaker, finding UO professors to gear classes toward each particular project. In the end, more than 400 students from eight academic departments gave 50,000 hours to a wide range of projects, including a redesign of a highway corridor, a feasibility study for a community art center, outreach to the growing Latino community, and a “Walk, Bike, Roll” marketing campaign.
Other student recommendations may lead one day to a new police station that features a courtyard for shared lunches and community barbeques, and even a public café, store, library, classroom, or fitness room. “The courtyard was one of many ideas exploring the concept that the police station building could actually be a catalyst for change in the community and even have a strong role in the daily urban fabric,” said Eugene architect Joseph Moore, BArch ’07, who taught SCI’s Redmond-project architecture class.
THE PIONEERING COLLABORATIVE MODEL, according to Schlossberg, benefits everyone involved. “Students get value out of doing real-world projects and the faculty gets value because students are totally motivated and doing better work,” he says. Cities get expert attention from professors, often leaders in their fields, who help hundreds of young minds churn over countless issues and create proposals to solve them.
Cities pay $300,000–350,000 to participate in the program—after vying against other cities for the yearlong partnership—and say it’s worth every penny.
Heather Richards, Redmond’s community development director, says it’s been refreshing to watch student innovation move projects forward that had been stagnant for years. “Most of us, especially in management levels, have been in the industry awhile and we get a bit jaded and put into a box. It’s been energizing to have young people challenge that box, not only for us, but for city leadership and the community.”
Students love it, too. Fifth-year architecture student Dianna Montzka went to the first class of her bicycle transportation course not knowing it was run through SCYP.
Though she’d had many classes in architecture and city planning, this class, for which Professor Schlossberg won a UO Sustainability Award, was, “from the get-go, 10 times better than any experience I’d had. At our first meeting with Redmond, it was clear they were impressed with the knowledge we already had about their city and taken aback at our level of commitment.”
Montzka recalls that Richards invited the class to think big and share freely. “She told us, ‘We want to hear anything and everything you have. This is up to you guys, really.’”
The students dove into research and, over the next 10 weeks, sketched, Skyped, scanned, and e-mailed with city staffers as they tinkered with ways to make Redmond’s bicycling infrastructure more safe, accessible, and family-friendly. “I put much more energy into my work because I was making a difference in the real world,” Montzka says. “I was getting feedback from actual people in the city who care about this info and want to implement it, rather than having a hypothetical client who never gave me feedback.” Inspired to literally go the extra mile, Montzka even traveled back to Redmond with three classmates to learn more about its biking culture, interviewing cyclists in cafés and in front of stores.
”Being taken seriously made the work I did much easier to accomplish,” she says. “It wasn’t, ‘Ugh, I have to finish this assignment,’ but ‘Oh! I want to finish my rendering to change this sad street to an awesome street that’s going to work so well for them!’”
It doesn’t hurt the résumé, either. Classmate Kylie Kopczenski chatted about her bike transportation course with her seatmate on an airplane, unaware that he was a top executive with PFL Spaces, which designs and builds bicycle parking facilities for commercial buildings. “I didn’t think I would have much to put on a résumé,” she says, “but my experience working with Redmond added a tremendous boost. I was able to turn the encounter into an awesome job.”
SCI BEGAN THE WAY many great ideas do—with a gripe session. Schlossberg and four colleagues, all passionate about a multidisciplinary approach to sustainability, discovered a shared and acute frustration: The climate crisis was driving an urgency for improvements in energy efficiency and livability in urban design, but prospects for on-the-ground change were shrinking with city budgets. Meanwhile, hundreds of UO students were generating innovations in sustainable design that no one but a handful of professors ever saw.
“We have students turning in insightful papers over and over and over again,” Schlossberg says. “Most of the analysis and ideas are a nice compromise between being ambitious and smartly realistic in a way I never was at that age.”
But once students hand in those final projects, they generally hurry on to the next class, he says. “Ninety-eight percent don’t even want feedback. Every professor at every university around the world sees this capacity, talent, and effort being wasted.”
What if, the professors wondered, classes work on projects that cities actually want help with? They pitched Gresham’s city manager, Erik Kvarsten, BS ’82, proposing that each would gear one class toward a sustainability problem in Gresham. The students would try to solve the problem, and the city would give them professional feedback on their proposals.
The professors described city planning and design projects they typically work on in their UO classes and asked, “Does any of this stuff look useful?”
“Much to our surprise,” Schlossberg said, “Kvarsten and city staffers went down our list and said, ‘We could use help with everything on your list, and here are 10 or 20 more things—do you do that at the UO?’” Schlossberg and associate professor of architecture Nico Larco matched the projects with UO professors and in 2009, launched the Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI), which they now codirect. “Right from the start, it was like drinking from a fire hose,” says Larco.
That first year, students in 19 classes dug into multiple projects in Gresham, including a design for a new city hall, redevelopment for a low-income neighborhood, and beautification of a light-rail station. Students offered so many creative and pragmatic solutions that, even in the recession economy, Gresham decided to pay. “The quality of the deliverables justified it,” says Kvarsten.
When more cities clamored to be “the next Gresham,” SCI instituted an application process and fee, and hired a full-time program manager. “To me, the power of this is that we didn’t reinvent the wheel at all,” says Schlossberg. “We just harnessed what already exists in universities and within our partner cities and stumbled on a way to squeeze efficiencies out of them. If you think about anything around sustainability, that’s where it’s at.”
News about SCYP’s success spread, and Springfield and Medford followed after Salem. After the New York Times highlighted SCI as “perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a US university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach,” and the Chronicle of Higher Educationpraised it as “one of higher education’s most successful and comprehensive service-learning programs,” other universities came calling, wanting to start their own programs. Larco and Schlossberg were eager to share the program’s successes, and in 2011, SCI hosted its first replication conference.
“Now, 25 programs around the country are running the SCYP model or some version of it,” Larco says, “everything from small liberal arts colleges to large research-oriented universities.” The program has garnered several awards, including one from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It also has a growing international component, with faculty members providing training to colleagues in Israel, Gabon, and China.
Larco has several theories about why SCI is so successful. “We’re very entrepreneurial. We think of SCI as a startup, so we’re nimble and result-oriented. Instead of trying to make things perfect before we go or thinking about something to death—which, as academics, we tend to do a lot—we say, ‘Just start’ and make it better as we go.”
Graduate student in landscape architecture Kelly Stoecklein (kneeling) points out features of her plan for a commercial area in Redmond, with (clockwise, from left) undergraduate Casey Howard, graduate student Matthew Jorgensen, ODOT’s Joel McCarroll, and graduate student Krisztian Megyeri.
ANOTHER PART OF SCYP’s genius is that participants get to approach problems from a multidisciplinary perspective, incorporating the full range and complexity of modern urban design issues. Students also get experience with a lesser-known but vital aspect of sustainable design and planning: social justice. “When people think of sustainability, they think of the environment, but part of sustainability is the equity component,” says Gerardo Sandoval, an assistant professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management. “For me, equity means making institutional amends for historical oppression, so it includes issues of race and inequality.
“Some people call it the three E’s—economy, environment, and equity. They’re like three overlapping circles; if you work in that middle space, touching all three things, that’s sustainability.”
Taking that to heart, city leaders in five of the seven SCYP partnerships have requested help communicating with their growing Latino population. Low-income Latinos in Oregon typically shun traditional public engagement processes due to language barriers, the difficulty of attending town hall meetings, and, for undocumented community members, fear. Because decision-makers lack in-depth understanding of Latino issues, they struggle to create effective policy.
In Redmond, Sandoval partnered with the Mexican consulate and a Latino support organization headed by UO alumnus Brad Porterfield, MCRP ’01, to conduct outreach where Latinos feel safe—at churches, schools, and Latino-owned businesses.
Student research has found that undocumented Latinos often feel unsafe in public parks and that low-income Latinos often experience discrimination while they seek housing. One Mexican teen built a diorama of a soccer field to convey his longing for more access. Students report findings to city officials, who can use them to inform public policy decisions that affect marginalized Latino communities.
In Medford, research highlighted the paucity of Latinos holding elective office. A person acting as a cultural liaison for the UO group later won a seat on the local school board. “One of my goals is to create a buzz around these themes, and empower Latinos to run for office or start their own businesses,” notes Sandoval.
THE UO SUPPORTED the growth of SCI in 2011 with a $50,000 Big Ideas grant. “The university was primed for this kind of work,” notes Larco. “I don’t think I’ve found anywhere else that has the depth of people interested in sustainability that we’ve got here. This is where the UO can actually be a leader nationally and internationally.”
Schlossberg agrees that the UO has the potential to be a world leader in integrating research, education, and community change. “We do it for more disciplines than anywhere else on the planet, and in a more effective way. This is the niche the UO can be exploiting to make its mark. We don’t do nearly as much as we should to own this space.”
SCI also hopes to expand its partnership with the state of Oregon. “Right now, the entirety of the SCYP funding comes from cities,” Schlossberg says. “We’d ideally like the cities to put in half and have it be matched by the state. It would be an amazing leverage of city-state-university—all working on pressing societal issues and training the next generation’s workforce, serving Oregon. Those are the conversations we’re trying to have with the governor.”
“We’re putting the public back in public universities,” Larco says.
—By Mary DeMocker
Mary DeMocker, BA ’92, is a freelance writer in Eugene.