by Mary Catherine Foltz
How can Universities and communities work together to promote sustainability? Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative (SSI) has developed a few different ways to answer this question in the past years. Recently, we worked with community partners and citizens of Bethlehem to develop community gardens and to begin the process of imaging a pedestrian bridge. With our community gardens project and our South Side Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture Working group, we focus on creating spaces that support the production of high quality and low cost produce for area residents. In addition, we offer a number of educational workshops focused on urban agriculture for students of South Side area schools as well as Lehigh University. Combining educational outreach and hands-on urban framing, SSI and our community partners support conversations about the import of fostering local food systems as a way to counter the environmental costs of transporting produce long distances. We also contribute to discussions about the environmental impact of global and local food systems, healthy food choices, and the rich culinary traditions of diverse immigrant to the Lehigh Valley. Because South Side gardens promote community engagement and provide spaces for neighbors to work together to grow food, they also have become unique spaces in which residents can meet to share our commitment to addressing food insecurity and the development of sustainable agricultural production. With multiple sites including Martin Luther King, Jr. Park garden on Carlton Avenue, the Esperanza garden on the greenway between Taylor and Webster Streets, and the Ullman Park garden at Sassafras and Route 378, SSI and community members have created a fruitful partnership between the University and residents to foster vibrant conversations about urban agriculture as well as practical educational workshops that foster the skills necessary to make such agriculture a reality on the South Side.
Another way that universities and communities can come together to address sustainability in by tackling community’s overreliance on automobiles that introduce particulate matter in the air that we breathe. In the past year, our local chapter of the Sierra Club and SSI created a number of public forums to imagine how the city of Bethlehem might become a true walking city by investing in a pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River. Bringing residents, city officials, and University folk together to envision our needs and desires, we have created a vibrant image of how a bridge might foster safe foot and bike traffic, promote easy pedestrian access to our business, arts, and historic districts, and increase the number of residents who might choose to walk to school or work. This focus on infrastructure is important in university and civic partnerships as the design of our cities can support or impede healthy lifestyle choices for residents as well as increase or lessen our collective environmental impact. As we move forward with a proposal for a pedestrian bridge, we have learned that residents are eager for civic leaders as well as educational and other organizations to support the creation of greenways and interconnected walking pathways off of major vehicular roadways that make movement through the city enjoyable and safe. The successes of scientists, activists, and educators in increasing public awareness of climate change also has contributed to a greater public desire for civic infrastructure that both creates a better quality of life as well as responds to environmental issues. Bethlehem residents’ collective conversations of a pedestrian bridge prove that we, too, are invested in shaping our city to foster greater environmental and human health.
A final way that universities can promote sustainability in local communities is by sharing research through accessible public talks and workshops and supporting the work of regional organizations committed to sustainability. In the past year, SSI sponsored a lecture series hosted at Bethlehem’s Town Hall titled “Flourishing in the Green City.” This public series brought a number of renowned academic writers to Bethlehem to discuss climate change, urban agriculture, and environmentalism in everyday life. With public lecture series like this, universities can provide spaces for concerned citizens to learn about recent research and to discuss ways that we might support local sustainable communities. Beyond creating spaces for the public to engage with research, universities can partner with local organizations committed to environmentalism that connect research to discussions of local civic policies and positive community changes that can benefit our region. By creating working groups on environmental issues with community and university members, fostering public conversations of civic policy and infrastructure, and providing opportunities for the public to engage with academic research in accessible forums, universities and communities can come together to make positive change in the hope of building more sustainable cities for future generations.
by Mary Catherine Foltz
Mary is Interim Director of Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative and an Associate Professor of English with a focus on important issues of our time such as environmental devastation, innovation, and identity and difference.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)