Vassar Stories

Cool Courses: Putting Sustainability Theory into Practice

For the first eight weeks of the semester, students in associate professor Mary Ann Cunningham’s Geography 280 class studied some of the theories and ideas that are driving the sustainability movement. They read about “carbon footprints,” innovative energy conservation methods, and growing concerns about climate change.

Associate professor Mary Ann Cunningham (center) and Michael Marrella ’99 (left) and Jackie Harris ’75 (right), who work with the New York City Department of Planning, with students in “Sustainability Planning” on the Spring Break study trip to New York.

During Spring Break, Cunningham’s classroom moved 75 miles down the Hudson River to New York City, where her students met with public officials, energy experts and environmentalists who are putting many of these ideas into practice. And soon, some of what the students learned will be used to make the Vassar campus a healthier and more sustainable place.

“I’ve wanted to teach a class like this for quite a while, addressing issues such as energy efficiency and climate change and using the information we gather to enhance our sustainability at Vassar,” Cunningham says. “This is a course about finding out how to do the right thing, how to change our practices so we can move forward toward sustainability.”

Alistair Hall, Vassar’s sustainability coordinator, accompanied Cunningham and her students on the trip. He said he was looking forward to using what they’d learned as the college updates its sustainability plan and its long-term master plan this year. “Sustainability is one of the core principles in the college’s master plan, and the papers the students write for this course will help us develop strategies to meet our goals,” Hall says.

During their three-day stay in the city, the class:

--- Met with members of Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s Office of Sustainability, where they discussed the city’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050;

--- Spoke with representatives of the city Housing Authority about sustainability initiatives that have been employed in public housing;

--- Toured a state-of-the-art co-generation power plant at New York University;

--- Toured a building at the New York School of Interior Design that meets the strictest energy efficiency standards in the country;

--- Spoke with officials of the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency about financial incentives the state offers to companies, trade unions, institutions, and individuals who find ways to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions;

--- Met with lawyers and economists at the Environmental Defense Fund who spoke about current and proposed regulatory policies aimed at improving energy conservation.

The class capped its trip by meeting with two Vassar alums who hold key positions at the New York City Department of Planning. Michael Marrella ’99, the department’s waterfront planning director, spoke about the city’s short-term and long-term plans for its harbors and its 520 miles of shoreline. Jackie Harris ’75, the agency’s deputy director, talked to the students about the city’s planning process and land use policies.

Marrella told the students he was optimistic about the future of the city’s waterfront, thanks in large part to the policies that have been established by the city, state, and federal governments over the last 20 years to protect its waterways. “What we’re doing is working,” he says. “There are now 13 different species of sharks in our harbor.”

Harris told the class that, for better or worse, politics often plays a role in what decisions are made about how the city develops. But she notes the planning process does include plenty of opportunity for input from the public, starting with reviews of all applications by community boards comprised of people who live in the neighborhood where the project will be located. 

Cunningham says she’s grateful to Harris for explaining not only what city planning officials do but also how they make their decisions. “In this class we are looking at examples of what people do, but the larger questions are about process,” she says. “At Vassar I have yet to meet someone who’s not enthusiastic about sustainability and reducing our climate impacts. But we all have real, daily obstacles, a lack of clarity on shared sustainability aims, and I think we got a good chance to consider these issues on this trip, and we were impressed at how much people in New York are doing to lead the way in sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction efforts.”

The students say they’re looking forward to applying what they learned.

Nick Ginsburg '18 decided to write his final paper on the feasibility of using solar power in disadvantaged neighborhoods. “I met some people at the Environmental Defense Fund who gave me some information that will enable me to flesh out my ideas in this paper,” he says.

Ariadne Skoufos ’16 says she was anxious to use some of the information she had gathered on the trip to help update Vassar’s master plan. “I’m a member of the Master Plan Committee, and I learned some things about how energy efficiency and sustainability are being addressed in New York City that will help us as we go forward with our work on the master plan,” Skoufos says.

She decided to write her final paper on the issues that arise when a building with historic significance is renovated so that it is more energy-efficient. Some of the information for her paper will be drawn from a recent study on the subject done by the city planning department. “What’s great about this course is that it merges theory about conservation issues with what’s really being done in real communities,” Skoufos says.

--Larry Hertz

Photo credit: Samuel Stuart

Posted Monday, April 20, 2015