Resilient Communities Project offers new model for collaboration

Across Minnesota and throughout the country, there is a growing interest in new approaches to community sustainability related to a wide range of local issues, including transportation. In the past, many communities have connected with nearby research universities for one-time projects and partnerships. However, a new program at the University of Minnesota aims to build the practice of sustainability through deeper and broader community connections.

“Each year, we work intensively with one Minnesota community in order to advance its sustainability and resilience,” says Resilient Communities Project (RCP) director Carissa Schively Slotterback. “This sustained and collaborative process fosters the development of a meaningful relationship between the University and the community and provides benefits to everyone involved.”

The RCP was launched in 2012, largely through the grassroots effort of the University of Minnesota Sustainability Faculty Network—a group of more than 60 faculty members from diverse disciplines engaged in sustainability education. Initial support also came from the U’s Institute on the Environment and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

In the RCP’s first year, a pilot partnership with the City of Minnetonka yielded 14 projects connected with 25 courses in more than 8 colleges. Several of those projects were related to transportation, including one project examining transportation demand management and another looking at transit-oriented development in the suburban environment. 

“The major benefit of the Resilient Communities Project is the ability to complete projects that the city has identified as being important to the community,” says Jeff Thomson, associate planner with the City of Minnetonka. “The resources that RCP brings to the community through the staff, faculty, and students provide a tremendous amount of knowledge, enthusiasm, and time.”

For the 2013–2014 academic year, the RCP received proposals from seven communities interested in becoming the organization’s next community partner. The City of North St. Paul was ultimately selected and has identified 21 community sustainability projects. RCP anticipates matching these projects with more than 30 separate courses throughout the University. 

Projects in North St. Paul related to transportation include building connections within the city’s trail system and work on implementation of the city’s Living Streets plan. “The community has faced challenges and opposition to advancing projects outlined in its current Living Streets plan,” says Slotterback. “We’re bringing together students and faculty from three different colleges to work together and document the range of benefits the city could realize with a Living Streets initiative.”

Resilient Communities Project participants anticipate long-lasting benefits for their communities. “RCP infuses sustainability into all aspects of city operations,” Thomson says. “It facilitates a larger discussion within the city regarding sustainability and resiliency. Through RCP, the city also benefits from the relationships that are built with the University and its staff, faculty, and students. These relationships last after the partnership with RCP has ended.”

Perhaps most importantly, this new model for community collaboration will provide far-reaching benefits that extend well beyond the partner communities. “Students will gain real-world experience in sustainability, faculty will have the opportunity to connect disciplinary knowledge to the larger issues of sustainability, and other communities and organizations will benefit from best practices generated from this innovative community-based practice,” says Slotterback.  “Ultimately, the project partners will become leaders in sustainability, helping to advance the practice of sustainability in the future.”