across the nation face serious challenges, from the impending
pressures of sprawl to the need for youth engagement. There is
a growing realization that these and other diverse problems are
interwoven. An increasing body of work shows that solutions to
these issues can be achieved through integrated strategies. ODI
helps people turn great ideas for improving their community into
reality." - Oberlin Design Initiative
the spring of 2000, eight students at Oberlin College in Ohio
held a series of open brainstorming meetings to design ecologically
and community-oriented housing that would improve both the Oberlin
community's quality of life and its impact on the natural world.
After bringing together over one hundred people from the community
and the college in three successive meetings, they had fifteen
criteria for future housing in Oberlin and several plans embodying
those criteria with which to work.
this process, the students realized that the concerns of the college
and the city of Oberlin are deeply connected. The community's
character, the vitality of its downtown, and the open space surrounding
Oberlin affect both students on campus and the people of the city.
They also realized that sustainability calls for more than building
green dorms. It requires a whole new approach to solving community
challenges: an integrated approach which recognizes that problems
exist not in isolation, but rather in relation to other problems.
These revelations compelled the students to turn their project
into an organization that would involve people from the community
and the college in creating integrative solutions to mutual problems.
Thus the Oberlin Design Initiative (ODI) was born.
and co-directed by three recent Oberlin College graduates, Casey
Pickett, Morgan Williams and Annabeth Macy, ODI fosters community
partnerships to identify innovative solutions and catalyze projects
that lead to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
The organization secured funding (primarily through private donations,
but also through a grant from the state and contracts with the
city of Oberlin for some services) and office space in January
2002. After a year of full-time operation, they organized a Board
of community residents, college faculty and regional leaders and
became a not-for-profit corporation.
has received a warm reception, and its events are packed with
people of all ages from both the college and community. People
from Kendall, a retirement community in Oberlin, and from the
city council come by the offices every week. More and more people
are catching the buzz and stopping by to ask for ODI's help and
to offer theirs. Students can receive academic credit through
volunteering with ODI. The organization works with over twenty-five
students each semester, who volunteer their time to complete many
of ODI's projects. Oberlin College has also been very supportive
of this initiative. There is no formal agreement between the college
and the organization, but ODI has received many in-kind contributions
from the school and considerable support from students, faculty
for Growth and Development in Oberlin
"Oberlin is at a crossroads at this time in history. There
are hard decisions to be made about what kind of character and
growth we want to see in our town. ODI has taken the bull by the
horns and presented to the public the issues at hand."
- Penny Maroldo, Oberlin resident
of ODI's main areas of focus has been the planning process for
future growth in Oberlin. Through working on projects that take
into account both the local economy and planning with long-term
environmental sustainability in mind, ODI has found a way to integrate
major community concerns and offer comprehensive solutions. Community
planning projects have included:
market analysis for downtown revitalization;
community forum on big-box development (large-scale retail facilities),
as well as a document outlining the tools communities can employ
to prevent and regulate big-box development;
smart growth principles for Oberlin;
a green building code document and organizing a forum for local
and regional developers and government leaders on green buildings;
the Directory of Independent Community Enterprises, a list of
small businesses and organizations in the region of interest
to college students that are reachable via the regional public
transportation system; and
local economy research to assess the effects of increased local
purchasing with an eye toward developing policy instruments
and partnership campaign ideas.
example of ODI's participation in local planning efforts is the
Land Use Planning Project. The two main goals of this project
are (1) to increase public participation in the planning process
and (2) to incorporate principles of sustainable development in
the plan. ODI is working with a diverse constituency in the community
to develop a plan with the city.
six components of the planning project are:
Education Component: Community Planning Seminar Series,
Round Table Discussion Series (televised),
Local Land Use Planning Workshop Tour,
Public Input: Grassroots Community Liaison,
Research Component: Community Planning Documents,
Benchmarks: Sustainability Indicators.
example, the Round Table Discussion Series fosters community dialogue.
Attended by a faithful constituency of residents from the City
of Oberlin, Pittsfield and New Russia Township representatives,
and Oberlin College Students, discussions addressed issues surrounding
the Lorain County Transportation Plan, the future of sustainable
development in Oberlin, and conservation development districts.
response to Oberlin's sustainability resolution passed in 2001,
a research and development team of five Oberlin students spent
Winter Term 2002 compiling a preliminary report of feasible sustainability
indicators for Oberlin. This report was submitted this past spring
to the city to inform their upcoming comprehensive planning process.
DiSpirito, the Oberlin City Manager, noted that the group has
provided a number of ideas and perspectives on sustainability
issues in town. Through acting as voluntary consultants to the
town, ODI is representing the environmental voice at the table.
However, it is still a budding organization and is working towards
making a real impact on the community. One issue it will have
to face is developing consistency despite students coming and
going over time.
the planning process and upon the completion of the city's land
use plan, ODI will shift its focus from process improvement to
assisting with plan implementation. ODI will continue to organize,
research, and run projects, and the organization will also begin
grant writing, brokering development projects, continued sustainability
initiatives, and other implementation support services.
for the Community and the Environment
"Since graduating from Oberlin College and turning ODI
into a community-based organization, we have watched as students
and community members who have visions for how their community
could become more livable have come out of the woodwork, first
in a trickle, then in a rush. ODI provides a place where people
with great ideas can come to vision, plan and implement projects
that build community sustainability together." - ODI
part of its integrative approach to sustainability, ODI has also
been involved with social justice and environmental issues in
the Oberlin community. The ODI office serves as a community resource
center, where community members meet and discuss pertinent issues,
browse the growing library of sustainability-related publications,
books and journals, or utilize one of the eight computer stations.
As part of a media literacy project, ODI partnered with a 2000
Oberlin graduate to organize a week long Movie Maker's Camp, which
engaged children ages 6-12 years in the process of discovering
their community through video media. In order to foster an increased
awareness of town issues on campus, ODI worked with a student
journalist to publish articles on the issues facing the larger
Oberlin community. The City of Oberlin is contracting out the
work of the Recycling Education Coordinator to ODI. The group
will create and publish six sets of "Recycling Tips"
on channel 9 local access cable to educate the community on the
Oberlin recycling program. Projects such as these should ultimately
help shape the town's long-term sustainability.
Luther King, Jr. Internship Program
Inspired by a local African American Oberlin alum, ODI is launching
the Martin Luther King, Jr. Internship Program, linking African
American youth to leaders in the Oberlin business and non-profit
sector. ODI plans to initiate the program by hosting an intern
who will expand the MLK program and, through community organizing,
increase the African American voice in downtown Oberlin. Students
chosen to participate in the MLK internship program will have
the opportunity to work closely with a business leader in the
Oberlin area, volunteer with a local non-profit organization as
well as learn the ins and outs of small business operation with
a small business education expert. It is funded equally by private
donations, the Oberlin Rotary and ODI.
Locally Act Locally ExCo
As a course for Oberlin College's Experimental College in 2001,
ODI instructors guided five college students on skill development
in community problem solving specific to Oberlin. The class concluded
with final projects in which students considered how they can
play a part in working to establish a socially, economically,
and environmentally sustainable small town. Student project topics
focused on predatory lending, youth after-school programs, and
the relationship between industrial vacancies and the City budget.
To keep more money in the local economy and in the pockets of
mid and low-income community members, ODI plans to train teams
of college and high school students to perform energy audits and
ratings for home-owners and small businesses in Oberlin, in conjunction
with their math and science classes. College students will then
help high school students write business proposals to their parents,
offering to perform energy audits and ratings on their homes in
return for the parents' commitment to invest in the energy-saving
recommendations the students make. After the parents implement
the energy-saving strategies, the students will track the energy
savings over the next year and the parents and students will split
the savings. To date, a curriculum has been developed for a six
week mini-course for trainers.
for Town/Gown Collaborations
In most college towns, collaboration on projects that benefit
both the town and college are rare. All the energy and intellect
put into writing research papers, organizing events, and publishing
in journals seldom reaches the community off campus. At the same
time, local knowledge and skills, and relationships with community
actors go underutilized by college communities.
is developing a practical model for improving college/community
relationships through project collaborations. The group is currently
applying this model, working on ways to visually represent it
and eventually publish it in order to disseminate what they have
learned and help other communities "close the loops"
between colleges and towns (see Figure 1). The founders had several
other models in mind when developing a plan for ODI, including
the Institute for Research and Urban Planning (IPPUC) in Brazil,
the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, and the Center for Neighborhood
Technology in Chicago, all of which apply systems thinking to
the creation of sustainable solutions to a number of problems.
upon their own experiences with ODI, the founders learned that
one of the best ways to get a collaborative organization such
as ODI started is to get out and talk to as many people as possible.
Rather than forcing environmental issues onto the community, the
group works on existing community issues while bringing a sustainability
perspective to them. Casey Pickett recommends having a flagship
project to get the group off the ground, and to avoid taking on
too much at once. He also advises that those wanting to start
a similar project in their community plan on taking at least a
few years to get the organization up and running.
offers students an innovative way to realize the Oberlin College
motto: "Think one person can change the world?" Oberlin
College helps young people figure out how they would like to see
the world change. ODI gives them practice changing it.
can contact the Oberlin Design Initiative at 15 1/2 b, West College
Street, Oberlin, OH 44074; phone (440)776-0209; or email email@example.com.
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