State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Sustainable Development Seniors Put Their Knowledge into Practice

This past fall, sustainable development seniors had the opportunity to work on client projects focused on local and international sustainability issues as part of the Capstone Workshop in Sustainable Development.  Clients included the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Population Council and Partnership for Parks (PfP). “We tried some new things this semester as we constantly try to improve the workshop to meet the student’s diverse interests.  In each case the value of the broad training provided by the sustainable development major and concentration was evident as the students were able to tackle unfamiliar complex problems and deliver professional-quality results at the end, all within the time constraint of one semester!” said Professor Gaffin.

The structure of the capstone course requires that students meet regularly with the client in order to assess the needs of the project and to work collaboratively on solutions.  This interaction between students and clients is not an exercise to produce a final paper and presentation. Quite the contrary, it is an opportunity for the clients to receive fresh and innovative ideas and research and in exchange students gain real life experience as consultants.  Under the guidance of Professor Stuart Gaffin and seasoned teaching assistant Eileen Quigley, students this past fall undertook very diverse and fascinating projects:

Natural Resources Defense Council

Students working with the NRDC collected data on rainfall runoff and explored the different sustainable options available to property owners to decrease the volume of storm water run-off. What many people may not know is that NYC water treatment plants currently treat both sanitary water and storm water run-off through the same system.  This has become inefficient and dangerous, as treatment plants can no longer keep up with the volume of water that is collected during intense rainfall, consequently giving them no choice but to release untreated water into our water ways.

Taking a closer look at the New York City Green Infrastructure Plan, students were able to project the social, economic, and environmental cost-effectiveness of implementing solutions such as green roofs, permeable pavement, trees, and rain barrels. Using available funding resources, students conducted a green infrastructure cost-benefit analysis for the private homeowner in NYC.  In an effort to provide an incentive for homeowners to implement greener infrastructure enhancements to their homes, students presented benefits such as increased property value and energy efficiency savings that homeowners could potentially gain from one or more of the sustainable solutions available, while simultaneously helping reduce the number of combined sewer overflow incidents.  “The Workshop gave me the chance to work closely with the NRDC, a dream employer of mine.  The project offered a glimpse into the world of environmental policy, and provided the networking and practical experience to help me get there,” shared CC student, Derek Nelson.

Population Council

In keeping with the Poverty, Gender and Youth program mission to, “improve the well-being and reproductive health of current and future generations around the world and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between people and resources,” students in the Population Council group worked to expand their client’s research scope to include events related to climate change flooding, and more specifically the impact of flooding on women in Bangladesh. With the application of sophisticated mapping tools students were able to provide visual depictions of the effects of monsoon and cyclone flooding on the most susceptible areas in Bangladesh.  Students examined different indicators and applied demographic health surveys to help determine the vulnerability of women during floods.

Students delivered several interesting findings to their client: namely that flooding decreases education (most likely due to the displacement effects of the flood); and, because of the loss of homes during flooding, households experience more tension and instability which make domestic violence more common and acceptable among women and society.   Although policies are in place in Bangladesh, the group recommended that policies need to be more rigorously reinforced and additional interventions are required to place women in positions of empowerment through education, microfinance, and the phasing out of customs such as the dowry and male preference.

Partnerships for Parks

Partnership for Parks (PfP) is an organization that supports New Yorkers who want to work together to make neighborhood parks strive. Students in this group created a survey to help PfP to better understand the effectiveness of their programs, by analyzing changes in the capacity of the groups with which they work.  Currently PfP has five programs available to groups: Outreach Program, Volunteer Program, Catalyst, Partnership Academy and Small Grants Program.  To develop this survey, students had to work and think ‘outside the box’ to create a definition of capacity that was meaningful to PfP, identify useful indicators of capacity, and design a tool for data collection and a method of data analysis. By re-defining capacity to consist of three inter-related components – self-awareness, ability, and sustainability students were able to identify financial capital, group composition, activity, leadership and communication as key performance indicators that would help them structure their capacity survey.

Through thorough staff interviews and data analysis, students were able to create an intricate survey questionnaire, that when implemented will help PfP to assess their engagement with different groups, measure a group’s capacity, and ultimately evaluate PfP’s relationship with different groups and the effectiveness of their work in different areas.

This workshop is a required course for the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. The goal of the capstone workshop is to bring together the theoretical and environmental sustainability concepts students have learned through their coursework and apply these concepts to real-world, client-driven cases.

Spring 2012

This spring semester students will work with Rockland County Bureau of Water Supply/Alliance for Water Efficiency, Partnership for Parks and Foodworks. Presentations will be held in May 2012.

Rockland County Bureau of Water Supply: Students will undertake a cost-benefit analysis of a range of possible water conservation plans for Rockland County within a framework provided by the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a national NGO devoted to the efficient and sustainable use of water.

Partnership for Parks (PfP): Students will work on the second phase of the fall project by implementing the survey and evaluate its findings for PfP.

Foodworks: Students will analyze a number of feasibility topics for Foodworks such as rooftop availability for urban agriculture, policy recommendations related to school lunches, and assessing the energy needs of NYC farms.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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