The Oberlin Project

Every now and then you come across something packed with nuggets of conceptual gold on sustainability.

This presentation by David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, from February 2012 is one of those. In it Orr discusses the Oberlin Project which aimed to regenerate the struggling Ohio rust belt town of Oberlin through sustainable development.

The project would provide the city a chance at urban regeneration and allow the local college the opportunity to examine how theories of sustainable economies and communities could be applied to “main street reality” in ways that generate value for the community and environment.

“We need to calibrate prosperity with the way ecosystems work and what they can actually regenerate.”

– David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College

The Oberlin Project had four aims:

  1. Transform a downtown block owned by the local college into a green arts and hospitality district that is a driver for the local economy. This would involve setting up a “destination-worthy” hotel along with music and arts venues, restaurants and bars. The block would also be zero-waste, solar-powered and have the highest rating of the USGBC’s green building rating system.
  2. Make the city 80-90% carbon-neutral while lowering costs and creating local jobs.
  3. Create a 20,000 acre greenbelt around the city in order to grow 70% of the food consumed locally in small farms alongside forestry
  4. Make the project an educational endeavour involving local college students across all faculties

What’s particularly interesting about the Oberlin Project is its aim to explore broader issues of systems change and “full spectrum” sustainability.

Designing a creative hub in the city centre, for instance, was not just about providing an economic injection. It was also a way of engaging people through the arts and food in conversations around sustainable achievements and broader systems change for sustainable communities and economies.

The approach is based on the idea, developed by environmental scientist and thinker Donella Meadows, that the most powerful points of leverage for creating systems change are shifting people’s worldviews. Creating sustainable systems is as much about changing people’s minds as it is about changing technology and policy and the best way of doing that is to engage them in ways that resonate with them.

“This has to be a celebration but it’s got to have science in it. It’s got to have facts and numbers but it’s also got to have good food, good hospitality, good art and drama.”

– David Orr

Not that creative conversations are the only means of communicating sustainability. Academics are engaging the public through columns in the local paper in an effort to “raise the civic IQ about energy and ecological issues”.

In terms of “full spectrum sustainability” the project was designed to enact sustainability as a systems concept by engaging multiple sectors of the community, environment and economy from farms and forestry to retail government, energy, waste, the arts, climate change and various forms of knowledge from business and architecture to urban design and geography. Involving multiple sectors and forms of expertise could make change sustainable and resilient to future shocks.

It’s definitely worth giving the video a watch or reading more about the project hereThis video also gives a good, and more recent, overview of the project.

In March 2017 the Oberlin Project office shut down after 8 years of operation (longer than the intended 6-7 years). While it’s hard to tell what the economic impact of the project wast, its environmental impacts appear positive with the city held up as a “Climate Action Champion” by the Obama administration. Progress resulting from the project is expected to be continued in diverse ways by the college, the council and the community.


Photo at top: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons


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