University of Oregon faculty members who propose hiring four new "hot shot" professors who are experts in "sustainability" lack nothing when it comes to thinking big.

They'll tell you their aim is to change the world by figuring out how to rebuild and reorganize cities in the United States and around the globe to account for climate change, population growth and environmental damage.

They're founders of the UO's six-year-old Sustainable Cities Initiative, and now they mean to start a research hub on sustainability that will deploy solutions to such seemingly insurmountable urban global problems as climate warming, clogged highways, obesity and the economics of mega-population centers.

"We want to put this stuff into practice," said associate professor Nico Larco, who with associate professor Marc Schlossberg -- both former Fulbright scholars -- launched the Sustainable Cities Initiative.

"We want to help understand these things and then translate them to where people are working professionally, at this moment, doing a project. That's the main crux of this."

The initiative has drawn at least 55 UO faculty members into its projects, sent its sustainability experts everywhere from Sweden to China to the United Arab Emirates -- all the while collecting national and international accolades.

"We put the university into the (public) equation in a way that it's not typically put," Schlossberg said. "We are integrated, we are organizing across these disciplines and expertise -- around critical issues -- and we are applied.

"If there's no impact at the end of it, none of us are interested in being part of this."

The UO's sustainable cities initiative is one of 10 programs in which the UO wants to boost hiring as part of its "clusters of excellence" effort -- provided it can find the money from donors and others to pay for the added positions.

Sustainability is us

The interest in sustainability at the UO is long-standing, said Larco, Schlossberg and Heather Brinton, director of the UO's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center and part of the sustainability cluster proposal.

The impulse goes back to the 1967-75 governorship of Tom McCall, an environmental maverick who is credited with Oregon's land use planning law -- which has preserved green stretches of the Willamette Valley -- and the beach bill that allowed the state to regulate the coastline and protect beaches from development.

The UO Law School led the environmental bandwagon -- by decades -- beginning in the 1960s when the school began offering courses in environmental law. Oregon law professors launched the nation's first environmental law clinic to do pro bono work in 1976.

The annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference followed in 1983 and is now the nation's largest and oldest such event.

The law school spawned such nonprofit organizations as the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide in 1989 and the Western Environmental Law Center in 1993.

Sustainability is in the university's DNA, Brinton said.

Two of the four proposed faculty hires would work at the university's Portland offices -- at ground zero for city sustainability experiments, the creative classes that demand sustainability and the professionals who are working out the new city forms and functions, Schlossberg said.

"We're in Oregon," he said. "If you're interested in sustainability work, you need to be in Oregon."

Sustainable City Year

Larco and Schlossberg's claim to fame began modestly in 2004 in a decision to team-teach their architecture and planning classes together.

From that class grew an annual exercise in "short bursts of high-energy, massive engagement" -- called the Sustainable City Year -- involving dozens of faculty, hundreds of students -- all in the service of a specific Oregon city each year. First Gresham beginning in the fall 2009, then Salem, Springfield and Medford.

City staff members give organizers a list of a dozen or more pesky problems that they would like help with. The cities pay up to $330,000 to cover the initiative's supervisory and other expenses.

Organizers present the list to UO faculty members broadly across campus -- in geography, business, law, arts and more.

"We say, 'Look, the city wants help in these 30 things. Can you help?' More than 55 people across campus have said, 'Yeah, we'll do that,'?" Schlossberg said.

Faculty members sign up if they can include the problems in their classes as real world exercises. Together, the city and faculty staff agree on the scope and timetable of the student work.

With the prospect of sharing their work with city staff, the students get serious, Schlossberg said.

"They don't want to make a fool of themselves," he said.

When student ideas collide with real world constraints, it presents some learning opportunities.

At one city, for instance, students designed colorful and creative signs, which they shared with city staff, who identified a problem the students had overlooked: "Where do the bolts go?"

By the end of the term, the students had considered the practical matters of cost, materials, graffiti and theft -- as well as how the signs would be mounted.

Over the four city years so far, student ideas have provided fertile soil for city staff to cultivate for years to come.

In Salem , for example, in the 2010-11 school year, students in a business management class called Eco-Industrial Development surveyed the city's industries, looking for ways one businesses's wastes or leftovers could be another's raw materials.

The students discovered that biodiesel maker SeQuential BioFuels was trucking its leftover sludge to Portland. The students also found that the city owned an anaerobic sewage digester -- that turns sewage into energy -- that was working at about 25 percent of capacity.

The students realized SeQuential BioFuels could save transportation money by taking its wastes to the digester. Also, Salem would benefit from the tipping fees SeQuential, and other waste producers, would pay for disposal.

The students told the city: "If you follow our proposal, we think you will receive $1 million in benefit every year, starting next year," Schlossberg said. "One year later: one million bucks."

Efficiency, quality of life

The following year, the Sustainable City Year project took on Springfield -- 435 students in 30 classes tackled 15 projects and put in a total of 60,000 work hours.

The 42 students in Schlossberg's Bicycle Transportation class studied the idea of transforming the old, 4-mile Weyerhaeuser log truck road southeast of the city into a bike path -- and explored how it would connect with a system of bike lanes in the city.

Two years later, Springfield and the Willamalane Park and Recreation District bought the road and adjacent property from the logging company with plans for a bike path.

The students' work helps cities and their residents imagine what's possible, Schlossberg said. In the past school year, 35 classes worked on 15 projects in Medford .

For three years, educators from all over the country have gathered in Eugene each April to learn how Sustainable City Year works. So far, 17 universities have replicated the program, including in Tennessee, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas and California.

In some places, the professors found, sustainability is a dirty word that conjures, for some, images of a takeover by environmentalists.

"It's always fun to tell our colleagues in other states that, even in Oregon, we get told 'don't use sustainability,'?" Schlossberg said.

"We're fine with that. We will work with 'efficiency, quality of life,'?" he said.

"There's all kinds of ways to frame it; we're not so hung up on those terms," he said. "We try to be somewhat politically smart with who we talk to and use the right language."

Eugene, meanwhile, which prides itself on sustainability measures, has not participated in Sustainable City Year.

"Eugene did apply a couple of years," Larco said, "but the years they applied we just had really strong applications from other cities. We continue to talk with them and we hope to work with them sometime in the future."

Eugene, where the UO's 25,000 students are a huge component of the community, may be a place where student-project fatigue sets in.

It can be, the professors acknowledge, a poor experience for community leaders and professionals who are asked to participate in some "one-off" student projects.

Urban thinking

When Schlossberg and Larco heard about the UO's aim of bolstering academic output by hiring professors in areas where the school already is strong, they jumped at the chance to ask for four more professors to help form a research hub on sustainability.

"The proposal really wrote itself," Larco said. "It's things we've been thinking about for a long time."

The sustainability cluster proposers want to produce more research in areas of city development, street designs, transportation, civic engagements, urban ecosystems, green building, zoning and land use. But they also want to take a comprehensive approach to the problems, Larco said.

"A think tank (is) where we're not just looking at what the next project might be, but what are the next big questions that we need to be addressing?" he said.

Hiring and equipping four new researchers is expected to cost about $1.2 million a year, but that doesn't include new offices for the Sustainable Cities Initiative, Schlossberg said.

The cluster proposers are asking to hire an architecture professor to do research in sustainable urban design.

They're asking for a transportation planning professor who can use modeling and metrics to revamp thinking about mobility.

"Every car that goes by has three to four empty seats," Schlossberg said, yet the only metric that traffic engineers look at is vehicle throughput.

"If we altered our metrics and figured out how to quantify and understand how to recalibrate and use our public street space in more efficient ways, there's a huge opportunity," he said.

The cluster proposers want to hire a law professor who specializes in "green development" law, which is different than environmental law because it emphasizes crafting the legal framework upfront rather than through litigation later.

"There are laws and policies and regulatory structures out there, but it's pulling them together and seeing them as part of this question of how do we move forward?" said Adell Amos, an associate professor at the university's law school and a nationally recognized water law expert and a sustainability cluster proposer.

"It's organizing it differently. It's thinking about the law in a different way.

"We have the opportunity at Oregon to do it in the context of sustainable cities -- to do it in this applied, concrete, on-the-ground way that's meaningful to people's lives and the problems they are facing."

Green real estate

Finally, the cluster proposers want to hire an academic who's expert in sustainable real estate to research how real estate deals that involve green development can succeed.

"There has to be an understanding of longer-term payback," Larco said. "How do we figure out a development structure that can make those things happen?"

The cluster proposers have several candidates in mind for the four positions.

"Our strategy is to find four hot shots at the leading edge of this work who want to be in a place that has a bunch of people across disciplines doing this work," Schlossberg said.

Amos said they have to be enthusiastic about the applied nature of Oregon-style sustainable cities work.

"For some hot shots, the chance to do it in a really concrete and applied way is exciting," Amos said. "It makes it more attractive and satisfying, even sweeter."

Follow Diane on Twitter @diane_dietz . Email .

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