February 26, 2012 - From the March, 2012 issue

David Orr’s Oberlin Project Plans to Transform College Town into Model Sustainable City

At the 2012 VerdeXchange Conference, David Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, presented his work on transforming a small town into a model for sustainability through a city – college partnership. The Oberlin Project is an example of change at a small scale. TPR is pleased to share excerpts from David Orr’s remarks at VerdeXchange followed by excerpts from the Oberlin Project’s literature. 

David Orr

“We’ve entered a whole different era; it’s the era of the greenhouse world.” -David Orr, Oberlin College

This is downtown Oberlin. We are 75 miles on a straight line from Detroit and 35 miles from Cleveland. It’s a very typical downtown. This is Ohio, and people came from across Ohio to build a town square, a church, a college, and a grocery store. Then they kept moving west and cut down a lot of trees, and so forth. 

On this map you can see a theater that the college purchased to host the performing arts program. This is the Adam Joseph Lewis Center—the first national green building- powered by sunshine. The land on the east side of the building is roughly the same as the ecosystem that was here before the first European settlement. 

At Oberlin we deal with a generation with a government that doesn’t offer much hope. They don’t see much place for themselves in that world. This project is a model of applied hope: how do we give students the skills, the talents, the information available, for them to write their own topography on this age and do it well? 

We have four goals. The first goal for the Oberlin Project, which is a joint city-college enterprise, is to redevelop a downtown along thirteen acres and do it to the US Green Building Council’s neighborhood development standard platinum level. We want this to be a driver for the downtown economy. 

The second goal is to get the city and the college to become carbon and climate neutral. We are rebuilding the energy systems, starting first with energy efficiency. 

The third goal is to develop a 20 thousand acre greenbelt. We want to reach 70 percent food self-reliance, and this will provide the space for that to happen. 

The fourth goal is to create an education consortium that puts college, public school, and two-year college students together to determine what young people need to know to build careers and lives. ‘Full Spectrum Sustainability’ is a fancy way to say we’re going to have lunch with a lot of different people. 

Food, agriculture, energy, communication, education—what we’re trying to do is stitch these together. Our goal is to put these together so that each of those parts reinforces the resilience, integrity, and prosperity of the whole system. I think it’s a good way to think about education and governance. 

In terms of educational goals, we want to change the way young people think. To engage students, the Lewis center started ten years ago. We had 250 students that worked with incredible scientists—people from NASA and various engineering firms—, and we put together the A-team of scientists at the time. We want to do the same thing in the Oberlin Project, where young people learn how to redevelop the city. 

We’ve entered a whole different era; it’s the  era of the greenhouse world. The international energy agency projects that we can’t avoid a rise in global temperature by a few degrees Fahrenheit. For young people, this is a brand new era, and our job is to make them smart. 

The Oberlin Project

(More information may be found at http://www.coolwilliamstown.org/sites/default/files/OberlinProject.pdf)


Converging crises of climate destabilization, environmental deterioration, rising inequity, and economic turmoil call for extraordinary responses by organizations and institutions at all levels.  For its part, Oberlin College has launched a project that joins the many strands of sustainability including urban revitalization, green development, advanced energy technology, sustainable agriculture and forestry, green jobs, and education, into an integrated response.  We have three goals:   

• Development of a 13-acre block as a platinum-rated arts district and regional economic and educational catalyst;  

• Transition rapidly to a carbon-free energy system including both college and city; and 

• Establish a 20,000 acre greenbelt for agriculture, forestry, biofuels, and carbon sequestration. 

We expect to: 

• Create a model of a prosperous post-fossil fuel economy in the heart of the U.S. rustbelt; 

•  Establish an educational consortium including a two-year college, a vocational school, the local school system, and 

Oberlin College that prepares all of its young people for good work in a green economy; 

• Begin a long-term ‘conversation’ between a vibrant arts community and the sciences around the many issues of sustainability; and 

• Create a successful model of sustainable development widely emulated throughout the U.S. and beyond. 

The heart of the project is the redevelopment of a 13-acre block designed to catalyze the renewal of its downtown and initiate a process leading to a prosperous post-fossil fuel powered economy, while improving its facilities and continuing one of the most important educational experiments in the United States. The investment in construction, renovation, and energy technology is intended to stimulate the expansion of existing businesses and create new enterprises that meet emerging demands for energy services, solar technologies, green products, and locally grown foods and forest products.  

The collaboration, now underway between the college and city, can be a model for politics and planning in other communities. We intend to use this project to (a) shift electrical use from coal to efficient and renewable sources; (b) minimize auto-dependence; (c) catalyze sustainable land-use patterns in the surrounding area; (d) equip high school, vocational, and college students with the analytical skills, technical know-how, and vision necessary to become leaders in the transition to a prosperous and sustainable future; and (e) contribute to a deeper national dialogue about the challenges and opportunities of actually creating a sustainable world, one city and region at a time.     



The project has three major components.  

1. Oberlin College will develop a 13-acre downtown block that includes the Allen Memorial Art Museum (designed by Cass Gilbert and housing one of the finest college or university art collections in the U.S.), a performance facility (Hall Auditorium), and the Oberlin Inn. Both the Allen and Hall Auditoriums will be substantially renovated and upgraded to LEED Silver or Gold standards. The Oberlin Inn will be replaced by a platinum-rated, four-star hotel with a restaurant featuring organically grown, local foods. The remaining nine acres will include new facilities for student housing, a small conference center, office and retail space for local businesses, a black box theater, a center for ecological design, and an on-site waste-water-processing system similar to the Living Machine of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center on a larger scale. The block will be powered by renewable energy sources, discharge no waste product, and meet or exceed the highest standards for both building and neighborhood design proposed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the American Institute of Architects, and the “2030 Challenge” proposed by architect Ed Mazria. One of the most interesting outcomes of this part of the project will be at the intersection of the arts and music with the global issues of sustainability.   

The Green Arts District is intended to be a major driver in the development of a post carbon economy as well as an example of advanced ecological design at the neighborhood scale. The Green Arts District will build on the example set by the creation of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center in the late 1990s in which 250 Oberlin College students participated in the design. Hundreds since have used the building as a laboratory for research and study of the major issues of sustainability pertaining to water purification, solar energy technologies, architectural design, landscape management, horticulture, and energy monitoring.  The Lewis Center serves as an integral part of the curriculum and research, not merely a facility where teaching occurs. Each year, dozens of students work in the Living Machine that purifies wastewater, monitor and analyze data on the performance of the building’s systems, and maintain the surrounding landscape. Significantly, students who have worked on the Lewis Center have gone on to launch successful businesses in development, building monitoring technology, bio-fuels, food service, and agriculture.   

The project will build on and expand this tradition, educating and preparing hundreds of future students to become agents of positive change. Accordingly, the project is an unprecedented opportunity to engage Oberlin College students as well as those from local public schools, the nearby Joint Vocational School, and Lorain County Community College in acquiring the skills, aptitudes, and analytical abilities essential to emerging professions in solar technologies, energy services, urban planning, and ecological design. 



The Green Arts Block will be developed in four phases over the next five to seven years: 

• In the first phase, substantial improvements will be made to the Allen Memorial Art Museum and to the performing arts facility, Hall Auditorium, both at the USGBC Silver or Gold level. In addition we propose the construction of a new four-star hotel and restaurant at the Platinum level. 

• In the second phase, we propose the design and construction of additional student housing, a black box theater, and space for local businesses designed to LEED Platinum standards.  

• In the third phase, we propose the design and construction of a conference center and environmental facilities for wastewater treatment and solar technologies that will serve the entire block. 

• In the final phase, we propose to build an ecological design center serving both as an educational facility for Oberlin students and as a research and catalytic facility to advance the practice of ecological design in rust belt cities. 


2. As one of eighteen Clinton Climate Initiative Global Projects, the college and city will work in cooperation to achieve carbon neutrality. The keystone of the project will be the transition from our present heavy dependence on coal to utilization of landfill gas in a cogeneration facility to supply heat for the college and 15 to 25 megawatts of electrical power, which is roughly the range of our combined town and college base-load and summertime peak. On completion, both the city and college electrical system would be “carbon-neutral” for 30 to 40 years. Further, in collaboration with the city-owned utility and Sunwheel, Inc. we seek funding for a city-wide solar program to install 2-3 MW of photovoltaic (solar) power. Third, in collaboration with Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System and a private company, we intend to establish a thorough demand-side management effort to promote continuous improvements in energy efficiency throughout the OMPLS service area. Finally, in collaboration with Lucid Design, Inc. (a company begun by Oberlin students and presently based in San Francisco) we will deploy real-time feedback technology for residents and large users of electricity. 


3. The third component of the project, in partnership with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the Lorain County Metro Parks, private landowners, and state and federal agencies, is a greenbelt of up to 20 thousand acres for agriculture, forestry, biofuels, and carbon sequestration. Using the purchase of development rights, easements, land-trusts, cooperative agreements, and land acquisition we propose to re-direct the surrounding region from declining farms and suburban sprawl to profitable agricultural and forestry production serving the Oberlin market and downtown restaurants including those in a new hotel and conference center. Moreover, as a national climate policy is established, carbon sequestration will become a profitable part of land management in regional economies. Accordingly, we propose to encourage efforts to reforest substantial parts of the greenbelt in order to sequester carbon and provide the basis for wood products businesses that meet much of the local demand for materials and crafts as presently profitably done at Berea College in Kentucky. The final result would be a permanent zone dedicated to: 


• local food production and reestablishment of profitable farms serving local needs; 

• forestry as a basis for a local timber and craft business, similar to that, say, at Berea College; 

• carbon sequestration as a part of a national climate policy; 

• biomass production for both liquid fuels and chipped woody materials for combustion; and 

• improved esthetics and property values. 


The three elements described above are parts of an integrated package requiring substantial cooperation among the college, city government, the municipally owned utility, Lorain County Community College, the public schools, the Joint Vocational School, and civic and arts organizations, as well as county, state, and federal governments. The outcomes will include: 

• markedly improved educational facilities serving both the college and the city in ways that enhance value as a local, regional, and national model of sustainable development; 

• the development of a “green arts district” that creatively joins a vibrant arts community with the larger national and international conversation about sustainability; 

• secure electrical energy for the city from renewable sources at stable and affordable long-term rates; 

• elimination of carbon emissions;  

• creation of substantial numbers of green jobs in the energy sector as well as food, forestry, crafts, and subsidiary areas; 

• creation of new businesses serving needs for energy services, deployment of solar technology, new sales in crafts, food, and hotel and conference center staffing while retaining dollars in the local economy; 

• a restored and vital downtown with thriving shops, restaurants, and businesses as well as a new residential community in downtown apartments and condominiums;  

• robust economic development throughout the local economy that includes local farmers and landowners; 

• the first regional model of a prosperous and sustainable carbon-neutral economy formed on and renovation of a large part of the existing downtown as well as a transition to zero-carbon energy sources, the creation of new business, and development of new green jobs in energy Technology, energy services, and sustainable agriculture and forestry;  

• innovation in educational curricula at the College, the high school, and the Joint Vocational School to equip a new generation with the analytic abilities, skills, and vision necessary to lead in the development of a green economy that creates durable prosperity throughout all levels of the community—replicating the educational experience of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at a much larger scale;  

• establishment of an ecological design center that functions as part of the Oberlin curriculum as well as operating as a center to advance the ecological design arts and catalyze practical applications throughout the Detroit-Cleveland-Youngstown region and beyond. 


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