In the face of climate change, aging infrastructure and growing social inequities, graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Sustainable Community Development (SCD) program are busy tackling the myriad challenges facing municipalities and their citizens.
At Labella Associates, based in Rochester, N.Y., Alex Vitulano ’15 conducts environmental risk assessments of commercial and industrial properties, not only looking for soil or water contamination but also the broader impact of these activities on everything from the environment to the economy.
“When developers or towns or cities are applying to get grant money, say to renovate a public housing development, they apply to federal or state funding and part of that application requires an environmental review, which is what I do. I’m essentially evaluating every action they take, making sure it won’t adversely affect the environment or the community,” she explains.
As a student, Vitulano knew she wanted to work in the environmental sector, “but the environmental world is so broad, you can go in so many different directions,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was interested in.”
While developing stormwater management strategies for the Town of Canandaigua during her SCD capstone course in spring 2015, Vitulano was able to find her niche.
“We mapped all the stormwater outfall locations,” she says, “and the Town used the report we [the class] wrote…and are implementing our recommendations today. I’d never worked on anything like that, where the product was actually being used in practice.”
Since April 2014, 33 HWS students have earned a minor in SCD, and the program continues to attract students “interested in applying the skills and knowledge they have acquired in a variety of environmentally-focused coursework to community-scaled problems,” says Associate Professor of Architectural Studies Jeffrey Blankenship. “It is an opportunity for students to explore planning projects that require considerations of both policy and physical design.”
The SCD Program began as a collaboration among the Environmental Studies Department, the Art and Architecture Department and the Finger Lakes Institute “to provide a minor that took students outside the classroom to apply what they’d been learning in ways that mattered to the community,” says Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Robin Lewis, who chairs the SCD minor.
“We didn’t want to be another sustainability studies program,” she says. “The Colleges have a strong community connection and we knew we needed to cultivate an academic minor that involves substantial community-based learning experiences so students weren’t just working on community-scale challenges on a Day of Service, or even a service internship over 15 weeks, but on a sustained, longer term basis. That way, our students would start to see the importance of community-based research in achieving broader goals and learning how to navigate complex environmental issues at the community level, which bolsters their ability to hit the ground running after graduation.”
For Stacey Davis ’15, who now works for the City Planning Department in New Haven, Conn., the SCD program “really encouraged me to get outside campus, to find communities within Geneva and listen and learn about the needs in the city and throughout the region. That was a fundamental step for me in discovering that there could be a really specific career path in community planning that made sure the wellbeing of community members was truly being taken into account.”
Between reviewing zoning applications for development throughout New Haven and a host of projects related to environmental management and emergency preparedness, Davis plays a critical role coordinating with citizens and government officials to implement policies and secure the necessary resources to protect the community.
Central to Davis’ work, she says, are skills and values she developed in the SCD Program: “to identify the stake you have in collectively taking action and making sure the wellbeing of that community is at the forefront of any social, political or community decisions made. The SCD trips around Geneva and Canandaigua emphasized spending time in the space you’re working in and how that time can help build relationships and provide opportunities to listen, learn and contribute.”
For Zachary Felder ’18, the program helped ground the theories to which he was exposed in his architectural studies coursework. After winning the Design Excellence Award from the Danish Institute for Study Abroad during his semester in Copenhagen, he began an Honors project exploring possible redesigns for Castle Street in Geneva. Working with Blankenship and now Geneva City Manager Sage Gerling, Felder developed “both programmatic and physical designs for what could happen in the space — what kind of housing programs or education programs or community involvement could happen using the Geneva Library as a center point.”
While it was challenging, Felder says he saw firsthand “the importance and fun of engaging with everyone in the community for our design. If you just try to come up with ideas on your own you might get some good ones, but if you talk to local leaders, city planners and people who live in the city, who have interesting ideas and want to be involved in projects going on in public spaces, it’s a much more rewarding process.”
Now a Sustainable Planning & Design intern with the landscape architecture & engineering firm Barton & Loguidice, Felder is coordinating public art components, creating graphics and leading community outreach efforts as the city and the firm work to renovate the downtown streetscape in Geneva. Many of the ideas and designs developed as part of the Sustainable Community Development Capstone course, and through his Honors project, are being directly incorporated into the renovations, which are funded through the 2017 revitalization grant of $10 million from the State of New York.
Like Felder, Laura Kenny ’14 stayed in the Geneva area after graduation, interning with a planning group called Southern Tier Central to develop a long-term plan for the area surrounding Keuka Lake that highlighted the natural environment and benefitted the local economy.
She continued this work while earning her master’s in regional planning at Cornell University, where she also received funding to travel to Greece to develop tourism programs around Santorini’s water resources.
“We worked with the Santorini water department and tourism department, who are in the process of implementing ‘water walks’ on preexisting trails where we created stops to point out significant water resources on the island,” says Kenny. “The idea was to connect tourists with the understanding that water is scarce in that region and they can protect it while they’re visiting.”
Now at the New York City Department of City Planning, Kenny is part of the team at the environmental review division that evaluates the impact of proposed projects.
What stands out most for Kenny is “how hands-on the SCD minor was in the Geneva community. It was really great that we had these real projects that put you in the community, making a difference. I know that you don’t get that experience everywhere.”
About the program: The interdisciplinary Sustainable Community Development (SCD) Program integrates curricular and community-based learning experiences in order to provide students with the opportunity to operationalize what they learn in real world communities. Students pursuing an academic minor in SCD take courses in technical writing and develop research skills prior to completing their capstone course. Since the Program commenced in spring 2014, 33 Hobart and William Smith students have completed minors in SCD. The program has grown in part due to the support of the Isabel Foundation and Ridgway H. White’ 02, and is headquartered in the Bozzuto Center for Entrepreneurship, sharing space with the Entrepreneurial Studies Program. For more information on the SCD Program, contact Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Robin A. Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.