Cities and Universities: Natural Partners in Advancing Sustainability

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As city budgets and resources continue to feel the weight of economic pressures, one word has been at the center of recommendations to overcome challenges: partnerships. And when considering the range of topics contained within city sustainability efforts, the types of available partnership opportunities can become extensive: private sector, community groups, advocacy organizations, state agencies, regional councils, faith-based communities, health care providers, local businesses, schools and more.

As a big supporter of community engagement, multiple perspectives and maximizing value through collaboration, I’ve always been excited and encouraged by creative partnerships and strategies to pull together diverse skills sets and similar interests to work towards mutually agreed upon goals. It’s always been curious and somewhat perplexing to me then, that partnerships between cities and universities – seemingly natural allies in the pursuit of sustainability – have not received more encouragement and recognition.

Afterall, universities and their campuses are in many ways (to a certain extent), microcosms of cities. Functionally, if not physically, cities and universities have a lot in common, from the management and delivery of services (i.e. transportation, housing, utilities, food, public safety, waste management and recreational facilities); ‘behind-the-scenes’ processes (i.e. procurement of goods and services, attraction and retention of skilled residents); and the at times laborious administrative processes and procedures critical to daily operations and crafting long-term visions.

More recently, cities and universities also share an explosive growth in interest and demand for action around sustainability. In the past few years organizations such as the Princeton Review and Kaplan’s have rated university “greenness” while others (here and here) have tried to assess the impact of university’s sustainability commitments may have on admissions. Organizations such as The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), GreenerU, and many more have grown to support and advance sustainability throughout campuses. Academic programs have also responded to the demand to prepare the next generation of sustainability leaders by creating new degrees in sustainability and “greening” existing degrees such as MBAs.

Similarities in form, function, and demand for action with regards to sustainability should make cities and universities natural partners. And to be fair, many cities and universities have fostered great working relationships. This piece highlights the impressive and expansive efforts by Oberlin College to advance sustainability not only within their campus, but throughout the surrounding communities (also highlighted here as an NLC emerging issue). There are even groups such as the International Town Gown Association focused on
forging and strengthening these relationships. And yet, on the issues of sustainability so many more opportunities exist.

The following is a summary of some of the strategies and opportunities that I have identified for city-university partnerships for sustainability. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list and in fact, just scratches the surface. I would welcome your ideas for city-university partnerships as well as your success stories! Please post them here in the comment section or email!

–        Student research opportunities: Cities provide real-world opportunities in complex settings for student researchers to explore issues, identify needs and develop practical solutions. By working directly with local governments students are able to apply academic training, gain practical experience and get a better sense of the various challenges and priorities that city leaders must balance in their path to pursuing sustainability. An emerging area that offers opportunities for academic/ technical skill development for students while responding to immediate and tangible needs for cities is that of sustainability metrics such as monitoring and evaluating performance of sustainability initiatives over time.

–        Universities as demonstration projects: Universities, at times comparable to the size of actual cities (in population and/or land area), can employ sustainability strategies at a scale that can be instructional and even replicable within the surrounding community. From green roofs to bike share programs, “greening” offices to behavioral approaches to energy efficiency, universities (with R&D grants and/or determined student groups and faculty) can often ‘pilot’ an initiative more easily and quickly than a city may be able to pass an ordinance or secure funding. Results and lessons learned from these initiatives can then be used to inform city practices and/or make recommendations to bring these programs to a community scale.

–        Coordinated planning efforts: Just as many cities are developing sustainability plans for local government operations, so too have many colleges and universities been developing sustainability plans based on a long-term vision for their future. Using a ‘strength in numbers’ approach, and recognizing that many elements within these plans (i.e. air and water quality, waste disposal options, etc.) are not confined by borders we’ve created, cities and universities can explore opportunities to collaborate on a shared (or at least complementary) vision and shared strategies to achieving a sustainable future.

–        Academic advisors within citywide sustainability taskforces: University faculty, students, and staff bring a wealth of information, research, data and experience to lend to city sustainability processes. Conversely, cities provide an opportunity for the academic community to transfer analysis into action by informing policy decisions or contributing to tangible community projects.

Finally, cities looking to attract a skilled, educated workforce may take note of the interests and priorities of incoming students and recent graduates. As mentioned earlier, interest in sustainability-focused degrees has been skyrocketing in many universities, while evidence is growing that a university’s commitment to sustainability may influence enrollment. It is thus not a far stretch to imagine that individuals who value commitments to sustainability within their university setting would also prioritize these elements when selecting a place to live and work. While practical considerations such as job availability, affordability, and proximity to family will naturally continue to have the greatest bearing in location preferences, it’s hard to imagine that the recent grads who selected their university communities based in part on features such as multi-modal transportation options, open space, healthy food options, energy efficient buildings, and a sense of place and community, would not be seeking similar attributes in a city. Furthermore, graduates trained for sustainability-focused careers will be looking for jobs in cities that share these values, contain these opportunities and allow them to contribute their skills and training to actively engage with their communities. Is your city ready to be a ‘sustainability destination’ for these new leaders?

Partnerships involve a lot of work and just like any relationship take time to fully develop. Join NLC in Boston this November for our annual Congress of Cities featuring the workshop “Building a Big Tent: Developing and Strengthening Partnerships to Advance Sustainability Goals”. Learn more and register today!


photo (cc) via Flickr user Edgar Zuniga Jr.