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Sustainability students help Minnesota cities take green steps

A new partnership between the capstone class in the University of Minnesota’s Sustainability Studies Minor and the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program will take sustainability up a level in ten Minnesota communities.  In small teams, students from the capstone course for the Minor, Sustainable Communities (SUST 4004), will spend most of their semester on projects helping cities with sustainability projects.  The cities will either implement or take the next “step” in Minnesota GreenStep Cities, a voluntary challenge, assistance and recognition program to help cities achieve their sustainability goals. Some of the students will have the advantage of working with their own hometowns, but all of the cities have welcomed student involvement. The students’ efforts will be highlighted at the 7th Annual Twin Cities Sustainable Communities Conference, put on by the Alliance for Sustainability on March 23 and 24.  The students will give presentations about “their” cities standing alongside the program coordinator for GreenStep Cities, Philipp Muessig, who is also serving as a mentor for the class.

The Sustainable Communities Conference

All University of Minnesota students and members of the public are invited to hear the students, and much more, by attending all or part of the Sustainable Communities Conference.  The Conference includes the Sustainable Business Forum in the morning and the Local Government Workshop in the afternoon of Friday, March 23, both at McNamara Alumni Center.  The very popular Community Conference takes place all day, Saturday, March 24, at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.  Sustainability student presentations will occur Friday afternoon and Saturday.  As in past years, the conference will focus on providing tools and linkages to assist citizens and cities in moving towards sustainability, but this year will also highlight innovations within sustainable enterprises as well as drivers for sustainable economic growth.  Several hundred attendees are expected.

The GreenStep Cities Program

The GreenStep Cities program sets forth 28 best practices as a framework for achieving sustainability goals, focused especially on cost savings, energy use reduction and encouraging innovation.  Best practices are grouped within five categories.  These are:  1) building and lighting, 2) land use, 3) transportation, 4) environmental management and 5) economic and community development.  Requirements vary by size of the city, so that even with a small staff and limited budget, a path to GreenStep recognition exists for any city.  The program is administered by the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) with support from six state and national partner agencies and organizations.  Since the program’s beginning in the summer of 2010, 38 Minnesota cities have become GreenStep Cities.  The full history, partners, goals and all of the best practices and actions of the participating cities may be found at: http://greenstep.pca.state.mn.us/index.cfm.

The Sustainability Studies Minor

The 46 students currently in the minor’s capstone course, who will be working on the GreenStep Cities program this semester, represent an incredible diversity in disciplinary background, work experience and point of view.  As a stand-alone, interdisciplinary minor available to students in any department on campus, the Sustainability Studies Minor draws students from all undergraduate colleges and dozens of majors.  A team working with one of the cities this semester might include a group of five students majoring in environmental policy, architecture, global studies, engineering and communications.  A couple of students on the team will probably be intrigued by urban agriculture while others want to be part of the renewable energy economy.  One might be very active politically and another plan on being an entrepreneur.   Instructors Julia Nerbonne and Erin Walsh are teaching the captone course, Sustainable Communities, for the third time this year.  Past year’s projects included improving campus sustainability in partnership with University Services and supporting neighborhood-based sustainability planning in partnership with community organizations.

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