Research for Sustainability at the University of Virginia

The Declaration, Volume 2, Number 2 : June 1998  [Research]

by Kristan Mitchell and Wynn Calder

The University of Virginia (UVA) is doing a lot for the state of Virginia. Research projects on sustainability for Virginia communities and regions abound. Two institutes at UVA are striving both independently and collaboratively to address issues of critical importance to the future of Virginia, as well as the U.S. and the world. Their common commitment is to sustainability. The Institute for Environmental Negotiation (IEN), directed by Richard Collins, Professor of Architecture and Planning, was established in 1981 to help governments, citizen organizations and businesses solve conflicts and make policy choices concerning land use and the natural and built environment through mediation and consensus building. The Institute for Sustainable Design (ISD) was founded by William McDonough, Dean of the School of Architecture, in 1996 to “render visible” viable alternatives to conventional design and practice. The Institute promotes innovative design approaches and restorative action that recognize the interdependence of ecology, equity, and economy. This article looks at some of the initiatives– completed, ongoing and proposed– that these two organizations are directing to contribute to a sustainable future.

The Institute for Environmental Negotiation

According to IEN’s director, Richard Collins, negotiation and mediation are necessary to move from environmental impasses to sustainability. However, it is IEN’s central task to “make compromise a last resort,” Collins asserts. By this he means that conflict, vigorous advocacy and heated discourse can produce creative alternatives and outcomes, not merely compromises. Like the Institute for Sustainable Design, the broad mission of IEN is to achieve a sustainable future. IEN strives to help people realize that vision through negotiation. The essence of good conflict, says Collins, is using it to reconcile social justice and sustainability. He is fond of declaring that sustainability is “the marriage of caring and carrying capacity.”

IEN’s environmental mediators assist parties who are not just bargaining, but exploring, and searching for new ways to reconcile environmental, economic, and ethical goals that are or appear to be in conflict. It is assumed that facilitation of dialogue among diverse parties in a community can lead to actions that benefit all parties, as well as future generations.

IEN has spearheaded numerous research projects that flow from it’s initial role as mediator in particular disputes. A recent example is a site specific dispute involving odors from biosolids which stimulated the Virginia Department of Health to contract with IEN. This project, “Land Application of Biosolids,” was recently completed under the direction of Collins. Tanya Denckla, Senior Associate of IEN, describes the issue in the following way: “As a society we need to find ways to handle our waste in a sustainable and, if possible, useful manner. The practice of spreading treated sewage sludge- known as biosolids- as a way of recycling’ nutrients has considerable appeal.” However, people in proximity to the activity typically complain that the smell is noxious and overpowering, especially when biosolids are not treated correctly. With the population in rural areas of Virginia growing, conflicts over this issue are increasing. IEN confronted the question: how can this practice, which supports recycling and sustainability, be made compatible with the quality of life for nearby residents?

In 1997, IEN was hired by the Department of Health to explore ways in which a biosolids program could be managed so that it would gain support from environmental groups as well as the general public. IEN interviewed county and city staff, federal and state agency staff, industry representatives, as well as representatives involved in biosolids programs in other states before offering their recommendations last September. Today, according to Cal Sawyer at the Department of Health, implementation of the recommendations has advanced: six meetings have been held around the state for instructing regulatory staff on the latest procedures for spreading biosolids as well as responding to complaints; and a new position was filled in March 98 to ensure appropriate application of quality biosolids and determine that permits to use biosolids are complied with.

On another front, IEN became involved in a project in 1997 to design and implement an evaluation procedure for the Montana Consensus Council (MCC) to help it function more effectively. The MCC’s broad mission is to help the people of Montana work together to resolve natural resource and other public conflicts but it also exists to help state agencies function better. The evaluation project is specifically intended to assess the viability of collaborative, consensual decision processes as a vehicle for achieving sustainability, whether ecological, economic, or social. Particular environmental concerns include public land use, resource extraction and protection, and water preservation.

IEN is primarily conducting interviews with MCC stakeholders: Board members, legislators, and participants in consensus processes. E. Franklin Dukes, Associate Director of IEN, and leader of the project, is concerned with the overall question: “Are we able to change the system of governance (in Montana) so that people can act more interdependently, and thus more sustainably?” The obstacles to achieving such a goal, he notes, are considerable. They include: unfamiliarity within the state with consensus procedures; mistrust of those participating in such procedures; lack of resources (time, research, legal support, mediator expenses) for adequate participation; and power plays by those whose positions are threatened by inclusive, open, consensual, and collaborative efforts. Each of these obstacles presents a direct challenge to the process of sustainable development.

IEN has assisted other states and universities in establishing similar programs of conflict resolution for environmental issues. The University of Alaska at Anchorage recently created such a center based on recommendations made by Collins.

The Institute for Sustainable Design

The Institute was founded to educate current and future leaders – designers, policy makers, and corporate and community citizens – with the vision and processes needed to achieve a sustainable future, while seeking to define humanity’s meaningful, rightful and responsible place in the natural world. ISD works with students and faculty at all ten of the university’s schools to achieve its four main objectives:

Render visible current human practices damaging to the built and natural environments and to human and ecological health, and articulate the strategies of change that celebrate the concepts and the promise of a sustaining and delightful world.

  • Be a living laboratory for the incubation and testing of innovative and sustainable practices and technologies.
  • Engage industry to enable ethical and prosperous commerce to be an effective agent of change.
  • Create tools to make possible the successful transfer and implementation of sustainable practices and technologies.

The Institute’s work – which encompasses the scale of the molecule to that of the region – is organized into four centers of activity: the Center for Sustainable Building Technology; the Center for Sustainable Regions and Communities; the Center for Sustainable Business and Industry; and the Center for Interdisciplinary Leadership.

The Institute’s initial work has been focused in the “Center for Sustainable Communities and Regions,” although projects are underway in each of the four centers. The “Piedmont Futures Initiative,” a multi-dimensional project which includes student and faculty research as well as community engagement, is the centerpiece of the Center for Sustainable Regions and Communities.

With the support of foundations, businesses and civic groups, ISD’s “Piedmont Futures Initiative” is helping to address the issue of rapid change and development in Virginia’s northern Piedmont region, home of the University of Virginia. This long-term initiative is designed to enable civic and business leaders, elected officials and concerned citizens to visualize and articulate a sustainable future for this area (which covers the Metro Washington-Richmond-Charlottesville corridor). The institute will illustrate the region’s “de facto” plan – or what will happen in the absence of a deliberate plan – and initiate a dialogue about alternatives. “Our role is not to be an advocate for or against any single approach, but to give people the information to make a choice,” explains Institute Coordinator Kristan Mitchell. “We will share the ‘de facto’ plan with the region’s leadership and residents and say, ‘here is the Piedmont in 2020. What do you think?’ I think there will be lots of discussion about change.” The project involves interdisciplinary student research projects, faculty research on specific Piedmont communities and issues, a series of leadership meetings and a public symposium to promote dialogue on the future of the region.

Ultimately, much of the Piedmont work will be housed in the emerging Design Resources Center (DRC). The DRC is a community resource to empower citizens and decision-makers in the Piedmont with the necessary design and planning tools to assess, envision, and enhance the vitality and sustainability of their region and individual communities. It will be a place where students, faculty, and Piedmont residents can work together to redesign their communities for sustainability.

Several other projects are under development. For instance, in ISD’s Center For Sustainable Business and Industry, a project titled “Design Protocol for a Sustainable Hospital: Eliminating the Concept of Medical Waste by Design” is being designed in collaboration with the School of Nursing and the School of Engineering. Medical waste is a growing concern among heath care providers, communities, and regulators. As volumes continue to increase and conventional methods of medical waste handling, such as incineration and land filling, come under question in terms of their cost-effectiveness and their impact on the environment and communities. The goal of the overall project is to develop new sustainable products and processes for the health care industry that eliminate the concept of medical waste by design, and are profitable yet cost-effective, equitable, and ecologically intelligent.

McDonough explains the notion of eliminating the concept of waste: “Sustainable products are designed to eliminate the concept of waste. In the cycles of the natural world, nothing is wasted, and everything old becomes food for something new. Everything must be designed to enter either a biological metabolism, where it can decompose and become food for other living systems, or a technical metabolism, a closed-loop industrial cycle in which technical materials continually circulate.” In one scenario, for example, the waste from the medical community could be used as fuel for a co-generation plant, where excess heat becomes fuel for the hospital’s energy needs. This approach can turn a liability into a commodity, but will require redesign of medical packaging, instruments and handling systems that will allow the incineration of these waste streams while substantially minimizing harmful by-products.

ISD-IEN Collaboration

ISD and IEN have realized the value added through collaboration. Design becomes a more effective tool when it is used as a springboard for constructive discourse, and dialogue can be enhanced when accompanied by strong visuals. Thus, ISD and IEN are more closely linking their efforts with the assistance of a recent major grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment in a new project called “Design and Dialogue for a Sustainable Virginia.” The project supports ISD and IEN’s on-going independent efforts, and will address sustainability in Virginia as a whole by creating and disseminating “tools” for sustainable design.

The State of Virginia and its communities have a choice: Recently invigorated economic growth in many regions of the state – or the desire to develop in economically depressed regions – poses increasing challenges to seek balance between economic, environmental and social goals. Virginia’s communities can continue current patterns of decision-making, which in many cases lead to natural resource degradation, social inequity, and wasted economic resources. Or they can change. They can seek out actions that are sustainable and restorative, equitable and profitable, ensuring that future generations can enjoy Virginia’s natural, human, economic, cultural, and historic resources.

“Design and Dialogue” will facilitate opportunities for ISD and IEN to work together and with partner organizations throughout the state to advance sustainability in Virginia, and to integrate sustainable design into the University’s teaching and research activities. Year 1, “Leading by Example: Creating Tools in the Piedmont,” will allow new, interdisciplinary design approaches to sustainability to be developed and incubated in the Piedmont, the University’s home region. In Year 2, efforts will be focused on sharing new tools, best practices, and successes throughout the state.

People often ask McDonough, “How long will all this sustainability take?” McDonough’s answer: “It will take forever. That’s the point.”

Kristan Mitchell is a Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainable Design. She facilitates fund-raising, project development, outreach, project implementation, and administrative activities. She can be reached at the School of Architecture, Campbell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903; (p) 804 924 6454; (f) 804 982 2678; (e); (w) / Wynn Calder is Coordinator of Outreach and Membership for ULSF.

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