Advancing a Network of Community-Engaged Sustainability Programs

Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon


On April 10-12, a group of more than 40 faculty and staff from 24 universities gathered in Portland and Eugene, Oregon, to explore prospects for building a network of community-engaged sustainability programs.  The gathering was sponsored by the Sustainable Cities Initiative and its Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) at the University of Oregon.

The conference offered details about the SCYP program and its now four years of work with Oregon communities on a vast range of sustainability projects.  The Resilient Communities Project (RCP) participated in the workshop last year as well, and continues to be inspired by the high level of success that SCYP has achieved in terms of garnering university and community support, media visibility, student outcomes, high-quality community projects, and faculty engagement.

RCP Program Manager Mike Greco and I represented RCP at the workshop.  RCP is among a small number of “pioneer’ programs that are now underway at universities and that have been significantly influenced by the Oregon SCYP model.  As a pioneer, we had the opportunity to share the story of our first year of work with our pilot community, Minnetonka.  We highlighted the influence of the Sustainability Faculty Network in initiating RCP, our efforts to distinguish our work among other public engagements at the UMN, our current funding model, and lessons learned during our first year.

Three other pioneer programs were represented as well, including the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities at the University of Iowa, CityLabs of the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, and Penn State University’s Sustainable Communities Program.  Each of these programs is connecting university courses with community-based projects in one or more communities.

The workshop allowed us to learn from the SCYP model and its growing base of experience.  At the same time, we had the opportunity to learn from the programs noted above, as well as other public and private, small and large universities from around the country.  Hearing more about how the SCYP model is being tailored to a wide variety of university and community contexts, we can begin to think strategically about how to advance community-engaged education in sustainability in the context of a very large research-focused land grant institution like the UMN.

Among the pioneers and other programs emerging at universities such as San Diego State University, Arizona State University, College of New Jersey, and Earlham College, there are tremendous opportunities to develop a network of community-engaged sustainability programs.  A network offers significant opportunities to attract national sources of funding.  In addition, there is an opportunity to support and develop shared resources such as capacity-building modules for faculty on community engagement approaches and for students focused on sustainability.  There is also a strong interest in developing a shared database, including an interactive searchable website that highlights community-based projects as best practices for communities and students interested in sustainability.

The conference offered a great venue for sharing our RCP story, and at the same time left us inspired that we are part of something bigger.  There is tremendous momentum and interest around community-engaged sustainability and we’re proud to be at the leading edge.

Carissa Schively Slotterback, Ph.D., is director of the Resilient Communities Project and associate professor and director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota  

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