Academics & Research / Spring 2018

Issues of sustainability and diversity go hand in hand. Faculty and students are working on solutions.

In Flint, Mich., a 2014 shift in how the city’s drinking water was sourced resulted in lead contamination that affected more than 100,000 residents, including children and infants. The city, long known for its economic devastation, is more than 50 percent African-American.

Two years later, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas, thousands came out to protest a proposed oil pipeline, claiming that its completion would endanger the area’s water supply while encroaching on sacred Native American land.

And today in Denver, a crumbling elevated stretch of Interstate 70—built decades ago through the middle of a low-income neighborhood that is home to many of the city’s Hispanic and black residents—is slated for major reconstruction. The I-70 viaduct will be replaced with a section of interstate located 30 to 40 feet below ground. The project will displace more than 50 households, and residents are concerned about possible increases in air and noise pollution and exposure to industrial toxins during the construction process.

See a pattern there? Sustainability experts and scholars of social justice certainly do. They argue that, thanks to historic inequities and ongoing economic realities, minority populations too often find themselves suffering the brunt of environmental problems and disasters.

“Where do we site landfills? Where do we site power plants? We usually site them in areas that are [home to] poor communities or communities of color, and those communities are then disproportionately affected by sustainability issues,” says DU sustainability coordinator Chad King. “They’re seeing not only air-quality and water-quality issues, but decreased life expectancy and lower quality of life.”

DU took an in-depth look at the issue in January, giving its annual two-day Diversity Summit a sustainability spin. Workshop sessions included such topics as “Leveraging Tangible Community Organizing Tools to Address Inequity” and “Climate Justice Discussions and Practices,” and the opening address was delivered by Dorceta Taylor, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan. Author of “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility” (NYU Press, 2014), Taylor also is the university’s James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor of Environmental Justice.

“More and more people are making the connection between diversity, equity, justice and sustainability,” Taylor says. “If we think about cities — Denver, Detroit, Chicago — those places cannot really be sustainable in the long haul if we don’t understand and incorporate issues of equity and diversity in how we make decisions about things like who gets clean water and who doesn’t; who has fresh air; how we plan cities.”

As questions about sustainability and diversity loom ever larger, the research and initiatives that address the problem are gaining currency, locally, nationally and even internationally. And the University of Denver, King says, is in the perfect location and has the perfect mix of academic specialties to lead the way.

“We’re a landlocked urban institute; we’re not our land-grant neighbor up north that has farms and thousands of acres spread across the state,” King says. “We’re situated in a growing, gentrifying city that’s expanding so fast it can hardly keep up with itself, in a place that’s very resource-limited, and now becoming space-limited too. I think as a university, we have a great opportunity to frame most of our work through this lens.”


Two DU graduate students are helping Groundwork Denver improve the business model for its greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Groundwork Denver

Connecting to community

When it comes to solutions, DU is putting boots on the ground.

A focus on social enterprise at the new Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise, for example, has two graduate student fellows working on business outcomes at the nonprofit Groundwork Denver, which partners with low-income communities to improve the physical environment and promote health and well-being.

The two are helping Groundwork Denver improve the business model for its greenhouse, located in north Denver’s Chafee Park neighborhood, so that the sale of fresh produce can improve the health of neighborhood residents while generating enough profit to sustain the organization’s other initiatives.

“That area is adjacent to several low-income communities, and it’s also a food desert. There are a number of fast-food restaurants but very few grocery stores and places where people can access healthy food,” says Barton Institute fellow Spencer Rockwell, who is pursuing dual degrees in public policy and economics. “Providing access to fresh produce has a tremendous impact for disadvantaged communities. One of our great opportunities is helping [Groundwork] figure out how to serve that community in a way that’s financially sustainable.”

In the geography department, meanwhile, professor Andrew Goetz is using the I-70 relocation controversy as a teaching opportunity for his transportation class, bringing students to the proposed construction site and asking them to research and recommend on various aspects of the project, from traffic flow to potential environmental impact.

“This case has it all,” he says. “It’s a great teaching case. But it’s a very real issue for the people who live there.”

Looking at the issue through a global lens is the Josef Korbel School for International Studies and its Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, a hub of long-term forecasting and global trend analysis. There, DU researchers work with the UN Development Programme to help countries think more strategically about their sustainable development goals and how they relate to policy planning.

And at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute (RMLUI), housed at the Sturm College of Law, sustainable development, undertaken with input from community stakeholders, is a perennial topic at the institute’s annual conference.

RMLUI director Susan Daggett used those conference conversations as inspiration several years ago, when she helped create the Metro Denver Nature Alliance (MDNA), an organization that focuses on large landscape conservation in an urban context. With DU as its academic partner, the alliance unites a number of area organizations — including the Nature Conservancy, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the Denver Zoo, Denver Botanic Gardens, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service — in efforts to make metro Denver a thriving place for both people and nature.

Students and faculty support MDNA through onsite service-learning opportunities with partner organizations. And a number of on-campus classes — from writing to geography to law — center around MDNA activities and initiatives.

“Building communities that have healthy functioning ecosystems within them and that allow access to nature tend to be healthier for people over the long term — and use fewer resources,” Daggett says.


Power to the people

Focusing on the human element of the problem, naturally, is DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). The school’s sustainable development and global practice concentration teaches students to partner with communities to increase community engagement and promote healthy living. The GSSW health and wellness concentration, meanwhile, explores health disparities in local and global communities, including Mexico, Latin America and Kenya. An interdisciplinary course taught by GSSW professor Lorena Gaibor and Lynn Holland, a professor from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, takes graduate students to Chiapas, Mexico, to visit with local communities adversely impacted by mining operations in the area.

“Too often, individuals, families and whole communities and ecosystems are displaced or destroyed by deforestation and contamination of the land and water they rely on,” Gaibor says. “Yet at the same time, we heard in Chiapas about the courageous acts of resistance by these very communities as protestors block the roads to the mines and deal with harassment and threats as a result.”

The social work school also offers a concentration in organizational leadership and policy practice, which trains social workers to empower members of marginalized communities to make their voices heard when their environment is at risk.

“Human rights is at the heart of social work,” says GSSW dean Amanda Moore McBride. “Jane Addams began the social work profession in the late 1800s. She taught immigrants, who were living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions in Chicago tenement housing, how to make their voices heard in order to change those conditions. That same work is happening today in Chiapas and right here in Denver, yet it is needed in many other communities.”


DU is part of an “eco-redistricting” project in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood. Photo: Anthony Camera

Shining a light on Sun Valley

One of the most ambitious projects aiming to improve environmental conditions for low-income communities in Denver is happening in the Sun Valley neighborhood near Mile High Stadium. There, an “eco-redistricting” project aims to remove environmental hazards and increase quality of life for an area characterized by high levels of poverty and unemployment and a large immigrant and refugee population.

Along with the University of Colorado Denver and Regis University, DU is one of the project’s academic partners. The University’s efforts are led by adjunct professor John Knott, founder and president of urban renewal firm CityCraft, and by Andrew Mueller, a professor in the Daniels College of Business’s Burns School of Construction and Real Estate Management. Both are proponents of “regenerative development,” a concept gaining currency among planners, architects and builders. Undertaken with plenty of input from community members, so as to avoid potential negative effects of gentrification, it’s a process that puts social and environmental concerns first and economic benefits last.

“Part of the approach is to survey all the stakeholders who are involved in your project and to use that to build a project that the community wants, rather than the old pattern that has given developers their bad name: They come into a community, they drop a project in there that they think the community wants, they are pretty sure it’s economically viable, and then they disappear,” Mueller says. “This approach surveys people, finds out what the community members are looking for, and that then drives the initial master plan of what’s going to be built.”

In Sun Valley, regenerative development is supported by a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Developers plan to build 750 units of city-owned affordable mixed-income housing, clean up the banks of the Platte River where it flows through Sun Valley, mitigate pollutants from a nearby oil refinery, and create a 31,000-square-foot youth hub that provides area kids a place to go after school and offers them “cradle to career” services. A planned international food market will bring more fresh produce to the area and provide a source of income to the residents who sell there.

Sun Valley has becoming a learning opportunity at the Burns School, which hopes eventually to develop a consultancy where students and professors advise on sustainability issues.

“This is a vehicle for us to train students in a real-world atmosphere on how to do regenerative redevelopment,” Mueller says. “Through the feasibility project my students work on in Sun Valley, I show them all the phases of a development project from beginning to end, but I also teach them the regenerative redevelopment way of doing it. We spend several weeks talking about how to incorporate [community] stakeholders when you start this process: How are you going to address their concerns? What do you think their concerns are going to be?”


A campus-intensive effort

Business, social work, law, science, international studies: Add it all up, says sustainability coordinator King, and the equation puts DU at the forefront when it comes to addressing issues of sustainability, inclusion and social justice.

“There aren’t many other private schools that have this applied backyard that allows us to dig right into [the issue],” King says. “I think we have a unique opportunity to continue to shape this as one of our focal areas and one of the things that we’re known for.”


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