BY BARRETT COLOMBO AND DOMINIQUE BOCZEK (photos courtesy of Kate Thompson)
When a community sets its mind to planning for resilience, the challenge usually isn’t what should happen, but how to find the resources to work toward long-term goals. This is certainly true for the City of Minnetonka, a community known for its lakes, wetlands, and thriving companies, not to mention engaged residents and committed city staff. “We can’t continue to do things the way we’ve been doing them,” said Minnetonka City Manager Geralyn Barone at the kickoff event. The world needs to change so people can begin to live their lives for the better. Minnetonka recently completed its strategic plan, which identifies a multitude of goals related to sustainability, with work plans for attaining them. In a time of constrained resources and limited staff capacity, though, implementing all of these sustainability plans can be tough.
In late August, as the summer sun descended behind Minnehaha Creek, excitement was high during a meeting at Minnetonka City Hall for the Resilient Communities Project (RCP). RCP is a new initiative that will direct the UMN’s breadth of expertise toward the City’s priorities around community resilience. “We found right at the beginning that this is a great opportunity,” Jeff Thomson, a Minnetonka city planner who coordinates the RCP effort for the city, said.
This past spring, Minnetonka was selected to be the Resilient Communities Project’s first partner city. Over the next academic year, hundreds of advanced undergraduate and graduate students will descend upon Minnetonka to suggest solutions for projects that range from developing new mid-priced housing to improved business engagement around water and energy conservation. They will produce architectural drawings and site plans, provide policy analyses, evaluate energy and water use in factories, and interview residents to understand citizen engagement. Questions range from: How would you define a neighborhood in in a community where houses are often separated by woods and wetland, to How might the storm water running off one of the state’s busiest malls be returned to its natural flow cycle?
“I’m excited that Minnetonka is considering how to make their community stronger in many ways,” said Carissa Schively Slotterback, RCP’s faculty director. “Our projects will consider issues of social resilience, in addition to environmental and economic aspects. We are convening courses from across the University to work toward these solutions from many angles.”
RCP was developed as an advanced community-university partnership capable of convening the University’s breadth of expertise in a coordinated manner appropriate to its scale. The University of Oregon’s highly successful Sustainable Cities Initiative serves as a model for RCP, and the Oregon staff’s advice and mentorship were instrumental in advising the University of Minnesota faculty and staff in this new effort.
This fall semester, eleven courses will work in Minnetonka, including classes from disciplines like architecture, law, urban planning, public policy, natural resources, and bioproducts and biosystems engineering. The instructors will span seven of the University’s colleges and schools.
In engaging mainly advanced undergraduate and graduate students, RCP builds upon students’ prior experience in other University service learning and engagement programs. “What I’m certainly most excited about is to see the University’s unique perspective on these issues the city is facing,” explained Thomson. Many students already have plenty of experience with applied work in communities, and have a skill-level capable of delivering products of sufficient quality to get the ball rolling on key projects for the City. Thompson expects that the community “will get innovative ideas we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. It’s a good opportunity to look at how we are already focusing on sustainability.”
Jo Colleran, natural resources manager for the City, explained that in addition to the influx of creativity and new solutions from students, the City is able to expand its network and understanding of how to connect with the University. “I think that the students are going to provide insight that we otherwise might not be able to acquire, and I also think it will bring lifelong connections for our community.”
September 14th marked the official kick-off of the event, featuring a wide variety of speakers and an overview of plans for the project. The day was bright at the Minnetonka Community center, and everyone was excited to gather and learn more. Chris Mayr from the Institute on the Environment gave an engaging speech on how students are going to change the future of sustainability. He believes that this project will not only provide help to local communities but also create “solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” He sees this project as a great opportunity “for us to develop the next generation of leaders in sustainability.”
Schively Slotterback was excited to launch the Twitter feed and get people talking about RCP. She believes there has been a recent “increased demand and awareness” for sustainable communities partnered with “growing student interest in sustainability and resilient communities.” It seems as though everyone wants to live and work in a place that’s better for the surrounding world. As the school year continues to progress, the students will be busy thinking of sustainable ideas and researching practices. Students from the course "Building and Site Integration in Sustainable Design" have already assessed the Bassett Creek area surrounding Ridgedale Mall. Students involved in the Neighborhood Identities Project will be visiting the Minnetonka City Hall Open House on October 9. Both the University and the City are very excited to see the project begin to fully take form.
Want to learn more about sustainability initiatives from the University of Minnesota? Visit http://www.susteducation.umn.edu/