The Oberlin Project: How sustainability education might transform a community

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

This article is the first in a three-part series on the impact of the Oberlin Project.

Down an ash road north of the athletic fields and tucked away in a grove of trees lies a 10-acre clearing filled with a forest of evenly-spaced, upright metal poles and the din of construction. It is the future site of a new super-sized, on-campus solar array¬ — one of many initiatives the Oberlin Project has had a hand in organizing. For the seemingly indefinable Oberlin Project this solar array appears unusually concrete, but the Oberlin Project is not as nebulous as general perception may lead one to believe. It’s just complex.

“What the Project is really doing is providing a sort of larger vision and way of having a community dialogue to bring together a lot of things that were already occurring,” said Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Program Director John Petersen.

The Oberlin Project is the brainchild of Politics and Environmental Studies Professor David Orr. Though its origins reach as far back as 2007 to when Marvin Krislov became the College’s president, a working document of the project’s vision did not emerge until 2009. The Project has five main goals: creating a green arts district in downtown Oberlin, reaching carbon neutrality, developing a 20,000-acre greenbelt around the city, transforming the local economy by bringing businesses to U.S. Green Building Council Platinum levels and creating a partnership among four local schools.

“The Oberlin Project in one way is an umbrella phrase that describes lots of activities brought together into a single system,” said Orr.

The Oberlin Project serves as the organizer and compiler of countless smaller sustainability initiatives. The variety of goals the project is working toward is both the source of its complexity and what makes it unique and potentially important. Orr said, “This is the first, … as far as I know, model of integrated sustainable development any place in the world.”

The Oberlin Project’s close ties to the College may make the project’s educational aspect seem an expected extension of its goals, but in keeping with the project’s emphasis in engaging the wider Oberlin community, the education plans are by no means Oberlin College-centric. The Project plans to involve not only the College, but also Oberlin public schools, Lorain County Joint Vocational School, Lorain County Community College and outside educational projects.

“We want to form a consortium with the four institutes … in a way that they’re adding classes and experiences to help prepare [this] generation and kids coming up behind [them] for careers, jobs and lives in what’s going to be a very different world,” said Orr.

Eric Norenberg, city manager and lead partner of the project, is excited about what this could mean for the community. “I think that we’re seeing opportunities for students in the schools to learn more about practices that will be sustainable that they can bring home and share with their families,” said Norenberg. “I think that will help improve their lives and the future lives of students as they grow up and learn to put those practices into their own lives.”

Though much emphasis has been placed on the younger generation, the Project aims for its educational initiatives to reach beyond just students. To make greater and more immediate changes, Project leaders hope to engage a wide range of age groups.

One such project is Rethink Your Ride, which offers prizes for participants who decrease single-occupant vehicle trips. Sharon Pearson, Oberlin Project staff member and transportation committee liaison, sees this as a jumping off point for larger discussions and changes.

“I’m very excited to be involved with … helping to educate people on things that … maybe they haven’t even thought about. It’s wonderful to be able to engage with people in these discussions,” said Pearson.

Cindy Frantz, Associate Professor of Psychology and co-chair of the Energy Planning Committee, is interested in creating an environmentally conscious culture. She and the Energy Planning Committee hope to achieve this by not only implementing sustainability-focused education in the public school system and running a column about energy usage in the Oberlin News-Tribune, but also by proposing policy changes to City Council, including an initiative that would require home sellers to make the energy cost of their home available.

Frantz said, “If people were required to reveal their energy costs when they went to sell their house, suddenly having an energy efficient house is an asset and people would be more motivated to do it.”

Many of the educational aspects are about engaging with ideas that have a real world application. Orr feels that involving many different people in all levels of the process will yield the most powerful results.

“All of a sudden you’re… taking ideas and you’re going across Main Street into reality,” said Orr. “This is a laboratory to take your generation and let you help us figure out how you do integrated sustainability. This is an educational goldmine.” Educating the public is a means to advance the project, but those involved with the project are doing some learning of their own.

“There are professors here that are doing a lot of research around environmental issues and environmental awareness and shifting attitudes towards the environment … The Oberlin Project has provided a really good setting to do that kind of research,” said College junior Evan Tincknell who has been involved in research loosely related to the project. Ultimately planners want the Oberlin Project to become a model, or at least provide a toolbox for how a college and town can become environmentally and economically sustainable. However, managing director of the Oberlin Project Bryan Stubbs warns against thinking of the Project as a blueprint.

“I think it would be presumptuous and egotistical for us to think that we have it figured out because we haven’t figured it out here yet. This is a work in progress and it’s early,” said Stubbs.

As Stubbs continued, however, he expressed a hopeful view for the Project’s future.

“I think some really wonderful ideas of replication and practices in replication are going to come out,” he said. “The idea is to empower [others, so] that some of it will continue on as an independent thing. Other parts of it are what will be to catalyze that change.”