Students dig deep on the Lents Green Ring
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: June 28, 2018
On a Saturday morning in June, PSU students wrapping up their spring term civic leadership class, set up displays around the border of Kelly Elementary School’s cafeteria and prepared to talk to residents of the Lents neighborhood about their wish list for community amenities including parks, greenways, and protected bike lanes.

It was the culmination of a term’s worth of work in the neighborhood, talking to residents about what their desires and concerns are and funneling that information back to the Green Lents nonprofit that is heading up the Lents Green Ring, a placemaking project focused on sustainable transportation, community building, and equity.

“Today is really about distilling the information that we’ve gathered over the course of the term and of the year and gathering more new information,” said Jennifer Joyalle, student in PSU’s Public Affairs and Policy Doctoral Program who taught the spring term Public Administration 312 class: Foundations of Community Leadership.

Actually, the ideas bubbling at the Lents Community Action Forum, were the culmination of an entire academic year. Students from fall and winter term PA 312 classes had also carved off pieces of the Green Ring project, conducting surveys, holding community walks, canvasing door to door, and putting the theory of community leadership into practice block by block.

And this past academic year’s focus on the Green Ring, built on the work of previous civic leadership students in previous years: PSU’s community-based learning work in Lents is wrapping up its fourth year.

Initially supported through the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative, PSU’s link with Lents, a diverse, working class neighborhood in Southeast Portland, has resulted in hundreds of PSU students and a handful of faculty working on research projects deeply rooted in the community and informed by neighbor priorities.

Before taking on the Green Ring project, PSU students played key roles in the development of the Malden Court Community Orchard in Lents, support roles with the growth of key neighborhood partner Zenger Farms, and collecting data and developing information sessions to support a neighborhood program for affordable flood insurance.

Adam Brunelle was one of a group of Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students who worked on a plan that was one of several precursors to the Green Ring: Lents Strong. That project was yet another building block in the partnership between Lents and PSU, and it led to Brunelle becoming the executive director for Green Lents, the nonprofit driving the Green Ring effort.

The PSU-Lents long-term relationship has become a model for the rich teaching and research opportunities that can emerge from multi-term and multi-year partnerships.

“I knew what the edge of community-based learning looked like,” said Kevin Kecskes, associate professor of Public Administration in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government and former faculty adviser for the civic leadership minor program. “But I wanted to go bigger and deeper. I knew we could get there and we had a cohort of smart and committed people who were willing to try.”

Working in the same neighborhood year after year, established trust among Lents residents and with nonprofit organizations such as Green Lents. It has also allowed students to get more out of their engagements in the neighborhood as they are working on priorities set by the community, not just projects conceived to support curriculum.

At the Lents Community Forum on the Green Ring, students were both presenting what they’d learned about specific projects—park development, neighborhood clean-up priorities, improvements to the Springwater Corridor and other safe biking routes—and collecting new information from neighbors who stopped by to participate and share what their priorities were. Food and child care was provided and translators were on hand.

“The student experience has been really authentic from the get go,” said Joyalle, who has been teaching classes of civic leadership students involved in Lents for several years. “But over time we’re learning as a team how to better collaborate with the neighborhood. The relationships are deeper, so we’re even better.”

She gestured to a group of students helming the station devoted to a conversation about Bloomington Park. “They’re bubbling with new information over there and engaging lots of new ideas.”

The Green Ring project got its start back in 2011 by residents and community groups who were inspired by the assets including parks, schools, and natural areas scattered around the Lents neighborhood. A few years ago, Portland city planners started discussing plans for what became known as the Green Loop—a six-mile connected system of parks and greenways around downtown Portland—far away from East Portland.

“The community started saying, ‘That’s exactly what we want to have in East Portland,’” said Jihane Nami, project manager with the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. “They were also working on a network of connected streets that would be safe for biking and walking and provide better ways to move around the neighborhood.”

ISS funded Amy Lubitow, associate professor of Sociology at PSU, to study the needs of the community concerning the Green Ring. Lubitow teamed with Rebecca McLain, ISS research professor, to organize community walks, documenting what they learned about the pedestrian experience in a 30-page report (available online in PDF format).

That’s when the PA 312 students came on the scene, with the fall term class conducted surveys about walking and the Green Ring goals across the neighborhood; the winter term class participated in door-to-door canvasing and completed a pollinator habitat planting; and the spring term conducted interviews, did some storytelling about Green Ring priorities and planned the Lents Community Forum. The priorities that emerged after the year’s work? It ranged from the simple—the request for a blinking light at the corner of SE Steele and 92nd Avenue, stroller and wheelchair access at Bloomington Park—to the more profound desires for a safe and vibrant community.

“It’s hard to say we’d be where we are without PSU and ISS,” Brunell said. “That consistent PSU presence has provided enormous benefit to the Lents neighborhood. It brings with it resources and an army of students and professors —the students have a lot of energy and an appetite for learning and building their capacity to engage with the community.”  

Next year, new groups of students from departments including Public Administration and Geography will continue to build on the work that preceded them and will get their own opportunities to engage deeply with the Lents community around the Green Ring project as Green Lents, ISS and PSU continue their years-long partnership.