State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Students Present Innovative Solutions to Clients’ Challenges

M.S. in Sustainability Management students in the “Sustainability Certification System for Tourism Companies in Chile” workshop group pause for a photo outside of Rennert Hall with their faculty advisor, Louise Rosen.

On Tuesday, April 30, students in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program presented their final Capstone Workshop presentations for fellow students, program faculty, and colleagues at Rennert Hall at Columbia University. This spring’s workshop projects allowed MSSM students to gain experience tackling tough sustainability problems by working with real-world clients, including the New Jersey Audubon and the Chilean Federation of Tourism Enterprises, FEDETUR.

“The capstone is a balance of a transformative academic assignment and the integration of real world management,” said Tobi Petrocelli, the presenter for the “Opportunities for Climate Resilience: The Beaches of Stamford, CT” workshop team. “Working with Stamford, Connecticut on climate resilience measures allowed our team the opportunity to demonstrate reflection, critical thinking and effective communication through the sustainability lens.”

The workshop serves as the culminating educational experience for students enrolled in the program, enabling them to apply the practical skills and analytical knowledge learned through the sustainability management curriculum into an applied project, giving students hands-on managerial experience. The workshop program was designed by the Earth Institute and the School of Continuing Education to integrate the distinct fields of the program’s curriculum as students and faculty work to address critical sustainability management issues. The final briefings are an opportunity to present the results of their semester-long sustainability consultancies to their colleagues.

“The students’ openness and dedication to working on this project, in which the most important indicators were emergent rather than predetermined, showed their strengths in integrative and creative research, analysis and communication,” stated Lynnette Widder, the faculty advisor to the “Living on the Edge – Integrating Renewable Resource Strategies on the Urban Periphery in Oaxaca, Mexico” Capstone group. “Sustainability is all about wicked problems, and the way this group approached the vague but fascinating question of leap-frogging conventional resource infrastructure at the edge of fast-growing cities showed their abilities to tackle complex and uncertain questions.”

The Capstone Workshop is the final degree requirement of the sustainability management program. The workshop serves the purpose of sharpening the students’ analytical and communication skills by allowing them to apply their previous experience and knowledge gained from the program to real-world problems. You can read the descriptions of the spring 2013 Workshop projects below.


Henry Gordon-Smith presents
Henry Gordon-Smith presents findings for the “Living on the Edge-Integrating Renewable Resource Strategies on the Urban Periphery in Oaxaca, Mexico” workshop team.

Title: Developing a Business Plan for New Jersey Audubon

Faculty Advisor: Kizzy Charles-Guzman

New Jersey is the most densely-populated state in the union and faces considerable development pressure. The scarcity of farmland and the dependence of wildlife species on habitats located on privately owned land imply that the fate of farmland and wildlife are inseparably linked. The New Jersey Audubon (NJA) has developed an innovative payment for ecosystem services mechanism that simultaneously promotes economically viable farms, while developing and managing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Through the Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment project (S.A.V.E.®), NJA works with local farmers to grow black oil sunflowers for sale as birdseed. The initiative promotes the profile of local farms by connecting its members with farmers and the locally grown movement. NJA guarantees participating farmers a fair price for seed output, often above market rates, as well as direct access to its membership.

NJ Audubon would like to engage the Capstone Workshop students to assist in the development of a business plan that includes recommendations on how to replicate the program in other states or regions in a way that generates revenue for NJA (licensing, franchising, etc.) If time permits, the team can also conduct an evaluation of the greenness of the product (e.g., a comparison of how S.A.V.E.® seed’s carbon footprint compares to that of seed produced in the central U.S.) and propose recommendations on green label marketing programs like Jersey Grown from which S.A.V.E. ® seed would benefit.

Title: Resilient Energy Systems for New York City Multifamily and Commercial Buildings

Faculty Advisor: Susanne DesRoches

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) mission is to advance innovative energy solutions in ways that improve New York’s economy and environment. Recent climate events, especially Hurricane Sandy, highlighted significant vulnerabilities in the energy systems of New York City’s buildings. With this backdrop, NYSERDA is seeking assistance from the MSSM Capstone Workshop to address the implications of climate-induced storm surges and water damage to building energy systems in the multifamily and commercial building sectors. It is recommended that a final report include a high-level analysis of building code changes, but should primarily focus on demonstrated, practical solutions that building owners can evaluate for implementation in the present and short-term future.

This workshop team will assemble, critically analyze, and synthesize relevant academic, professional, and policy research. Workshop members may draw upon publicly available data, and are encouraged to conduct stakeholder interviews and site visits to explore sound practices, scrutinize promising strategies and technologies, and gather information relevant for the workshop’s assignment.

Title: Sustainability Certification System for Tourism Companies in Chile

Instructor: Louise Rosen

The Chilean Federation of Tourism Enterprises, FEDETUR, is a not-for-profit trade association that gathers around 1,000 companies of all the sectors that make up the country’s tourism industry: hotels, tour operators, travel agents, restaurants, airlines, inter-urban passenger land transport, casinos, rent-a-cars, airports, and related services. Since its founding, FEDETUR decided that it had to make a substantive effort to raise the sustainability level of its member companies and, indeed, of the entire tourism industry in order to gain competitiveness in the international markets, as well as to attract more demanding and higher spending tourists to Chile.

 FEDETUR is seeking the assistance of the Capstone Workshop to resolve several outstanding issues and provide methods and deliverables including:

  1. Benchmarking: The workshop team will analyze 4-6 sustainability certification schemes n selected countries, which are internationally recognized as leaders in terms of sustainable tourism, such as Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Norway. The experience of these countries may provide benchmarks for addressing the issues above.
  2. The team will assess the economic, environmental and social benefits that certified companies in these countries have achieved, as well as other indicators, such as improved bottom line, improved public image, greater support and improved relationships with local communities, attraction of higher spending clients, improved loyalty from existing customers, etc. Evidence of such benefits in a number of case studies would be helpful as demonstration effect to promote the system among Chilean tourism companies.
  3. The team will gather information about the ways in which these countries communicate the advances that they have made in sustainability to the market.

Title: Opportunities for Climate Resilience: The Beaches of Stamford, CT

Faculty Advisor: George Sarrinikolaou

Stamford, CT is a coastal City (pop. 123,000) with three rivers and much of its infrastructure and new development situated along the coastline. The City has long pursued climate mitigation strategies, but it is just starting to consider the planning necessary to tackle climate change adaptation – one result of Hurricane Sandy is that it has brought the topic to the forefront. The storm significantly damaged three of Stamford’s coastal beaches: Cove Island Park (84 acres), Cummings Park (79 acres) and marina, and West Beach (26 acres), burying parking lots and lawns in up to 3 feet of sand, destroying a seawall, damaging buildings, and killing trees and other landscaping. The administration of Mayor Michael Pavia is resolved that incorporating climate adaptation and resiliency is essential to successful restoration. In the short term, City staff is concentrating on making the beaches viable for public use by spring 2013, which entails debris disposal, screening of beach sand, and doing the most minimal repairs to structures necessary.

Title: Living on the Edge – Integrating Renewable Resource Strategies on the Urban Periphery in Oaxaca, Mexico

Faculty Advisor: Lynnette Widder

The “leap frog” effect of cellphone technologies in areas without legacy infrastructure offers an attractive model for sustainability. The periphery of rapidly growing cities in which regulatory and cultural practices cannot keep up with rates of population expansion presents both a challenge, and an opportunity, to test this model. Working with three Ashoka Foundation for Public Innovation fellows in Mexico, the Capstone group will consider the case of the city of Ixtepec in Oaxaca State – the first urban destination of rural populations from Oaxaca’s mountainous areas. Ixtepec offers ideal conditions for communally held wind farms. However, the former dump site on the city’s periphery best suited for this purpose is now being contested by the city government, which wants to see it occupied by informal settlements for newly arrived populations despite inherent health risks.

Each partner’s organization focuses on a different scale of resource extraction and social enterprise in the context of the urban periphery: rain water catchment and low water-use appliances at the scale of the individual house or group of houses; biogas and fertilizer production for groups of small holders of farm animals; and wind energy production and distribution as the engine for social enterprise. This project will begin by analyzing the three partner’s current practices, cohorts and business models. The synergies among these three technologies can provide new micro-infrastructural paradigms for settlements at the urban periphery, addressing water, fuel, food and finance. The objective of this project is to identify ways in which these technologies can create a leap-frog effect, with Ixtepec as a test bed for ideas.


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