The Oberlin Design Initiative: Connecting Campus and the Community

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 2: November 2003  [Partnerships]

“Communities 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

In 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.

Through 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.

Founded 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.

ODI 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 and administration.

Planning 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

One 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:

  • a market analysis for downtown revitalization;
  • a 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;
  • defining smart growth principles for Oberlin;
  • creating a green building code document and organizing a forum for local and regional developers and government leaders on green buildings;
  • compiling 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
  • undertaking local economy research to assess the effects of increased local purchasing with an eye toward developing policy instruments and partnership campaign ideas.

Another 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.

The six components of the planning project are:

1. Education Component: Community Planning Seminar Series,

2. Round Table Discussion Series (televised),

3. Local Land Use Planning Workshop Tour,

4. Public Input: Grassroots Community Liaison,

5. Research Component: Community Planning Documents,

6. Benchmarks: Sustainability Indicators.

For 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.

In 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.

Rob 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.

During 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.

Working 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 Founders

As 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.

Martin 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.

Think 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.

Youth Energy Project
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.

Model 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.

ODI 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.

Based 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.

ODI 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.

You can contact the Oberlin Design Initiative at 15 1/2 b, West College Street, Oberlin, OH 44074; phone (440)776-0209; or email

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