Three RPCVs Collaborate on New Sustainability Program
By Erica Burman on Friday, November 4th, 2011
When Vicki’s outhouse washed down to the terrace below her clay and stone house during the winter monsoons of 1966 in Nepal—resulting in an abundant crop of carrots during the following spring and summer, she never dreamed that 45 years later she would be promoting a similar concept for urban water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States as part of the eco-city or sustainable city concept.
In Sierra Leone in 1987 Peter almost lost hope as he watched shipments of United States “PL 480″ rice from California arriving in Freetown harbor at the peak of the rice harvest season. It flooded the market, forcing prices down and made it impossible for Sierra Leonean farmers to make any profit off of the very same Green Revolution rice that he was supposed to be promoting as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Marc was luckier… sent to Fiji in 1995 as a rural planner to work with rural, indigenous island communities around issues of sustainable community development he spent a year getting to know the culture travelling by boat to remote islands, through beautiful aqua waters, incredible coral reefs, and unpolluted nighttime silhouettes from island coconut trees blacking out the star filled sky behind them. He then was able to hook up with a host country expert in the national government and they jointly developed a GIS system to track sustainability issues that is still being used today.
Today, Dr. Vicki Elmer (Nepal 1965-1967) is the Director of the newly approved Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) graduate program which opened its doors this fall at the University of Oregon. Dr. Peter Walker (Sierra Leone 1986-1988) is OLIS faculty for the Foundations of Sustainability class. He is also Chair of the Geography Department and core faculty in Environmental Studies at University of Oregon. Dr. Marc Schlossberg (Fiji 1995-1997) works with Oregon cities to create real life sustainability projects for student classes as part of the two year old Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI– http://sci.uoregon.edu/) at the University of Oregon. OLIS is partnering with SCI on their city projects.
These three made their paths from their Peace Corps experiences to sustainability in different ways.
Elmer’s chief passion post Peace Corps when she returned in the late sixties and seventies to the U.S. was poverty and activism against the Viet Nam war. She went back to school and obtained a MSUP in social policy from Columbia University and a PhD in Planning from the University of California Berkeley. She worked for HUD on low income housing policies for many years before becoming the Director of Planning and Community Development at the City of Berkeley, CA. She credits her shift to a more environmental slant to her stint as the Public Works Director for Berkeley as she began to implement the City’s Valdez principles by commissioning the first electric vehicles for city parking enforcement staff; piloted propane driven city vehicles and pioneered many recycling programs now used across the country as well as other green building policies. She then returned to the academic community and taught infrastructure and sustainable cities at UC Berkeley for 10 years.
Today Elmer’s passion is to help the next generation of city planners integrate water, energy and waste infrastructure systems in a holistic way. “In Nepal we focused on basic systems of health and sanitation for ourselves,” says Elmer. “That concern—we all talked all the time about our GI tract!– plus teaching science at a very basic level gave me a deep understanding of how culturally ingrained belief systems affect how we build and live our daily lives. I’m hoping to use these experiences to help OLIS students understand the metabolism of the city and the institutions that affect it to make them able to be the next generation of leadership for sustainability in the US.”
Peter’s Peace Corps experience left him with a realization being “sustainable” is a question that has to be examined in the political, economic, and social realms as much or more so than in technologies or policies. So he returned to school and obtained a PhD in Political Science from UC Berkeley in order to help people think about sustainability in deeper ways. “I think we still have a long way to go — by any meaningful measure virtually anywhere on the globe, we are less sustainable today than when I joined Peace Corps in 1986,” notes Walker. “Ultimately the changes we want to see on the ground and in people’s everyday lives have to start with changes in the ways we think. We’re not there yet, but I do have hope when I see the kinds of commitment and deeper thinking among many of my students. That’s the change I’m trying to help bring about.”
Marc returned from Fiji understanding that change can occur one person and one institution at a time and like Elmer and Walker, that the cultural component whether it be overseas or here is essential for overcoming structural barriers to new thinking. He obtained a PhD in Planning at the University of Michigan in 2001 focusing on transportation, GIS and walkable cities. He moved to the University of Oregon as a professor where he continues his passion for city design, social change and sustainability and is well known for his work on bicycle friendly design and policy. He recently co-founded the Sustainable Cities Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to engage the university resources to help cities become more sustainable which partners with OLIS.
OLIS (Oregon Leadership in Sustainability) is a one-year graduate certificate program designed to provide participants with the skills and knowledge needed for sustainability leadership in the United States. In addition to the three RPCVs above, core faculty from the Business School, the Architecture Department, Planning and Environmental Studies will teach cores on how to prepare sustainability and adaptation plans for cities; ecological design; decentralized energy planning and finance; green cities. This will be complemented by a year long practicum that emphasizes personal, organizational and community leadership along with practical experiences. Applications for 2012-2013 academic year are being accepted. They will review on a rolling basis on February 1, 2012 with a final deadline of May 1, 2012. See http://olis.uoregon.edu/ for more information.