New book provides toolbox for campus-community collaboration on sustainability efforts

Portland State’s motto, “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” speaks to the value the University places on engagement with its community and region. A recently released book by the same name describes the multi-faceted process of building sustainability programs at Portland State University—programs that rely on strong university-community relationships and a two-way pipeline of knowledge development and exchange.

Edited by PSU’s B.D. Wortham-Galvin, Jennifer Allen, and Jacob Sherman, with a foreword by President Wim Wiewel and chapter contributions by more than 25 PSU professors and staff, Let Knowledge Serve the City is the first book in Greenleaf Publishing’s Sustainable Solutions Series. It aims to share the University’s collective successes and challenges to help other colleges and universities develop programs that connect students and faculty with the needs of local communities to advance efforts around social justice, climate change, sustainable economic development, and more.

Read on for a Q&A with the book’s editors.

1. Who is the book for and what do you hope readers take away from it?

Let Knowledge Serve the City is intended for anyone seeking best practices in connecting students and universities with the needs of local communities, especially around sustainability-related opportunities and challenges. This first volume in the new Sustainable Solutions Series is accessible to university staff and instructors engaged in partnership work, faculty researching community-based learning, and university administrators excited by the possibility of better connecting their institution with the community to enhance student learning, break down town-and-gown divides, and become more relevant in a time when higher education’s value to society is increasingly called into question. We hope readers will be inspired by Portland State’s story, learn from what worked and where we struggled, and seek to implement some of these insights, programs, or partnerships in their own unique context to advance our transition to a more just and vibrant future. 

2. What makes Portland State University stand out as a leader in the sustainability field? 

Portland State University has built a strong reputation as a leader in sustainability over the past two decades as a result of the commitment of faculty, students, and administrator to innovation in this area. Chapter One describes how our faculty were “early adopters” in developing sustainability research agendas, curricular programs, and collaborative partnerships throughout the region.  PSU’s leadership in sustainability also reflects the fact that we are embedded in one of the greenest cities in North America. Portland, Oregon, has been a leader in promoting smart growth, transportation planning, and reducing its carbon footprint; in 1993, Portland was the first U.S. city to develop a climate action plan and the city has been pioneering sustainability innovations ever since. Together, these factors have attracted smart and dedicated faculty, staff, and students to PSU, which in turn has led to innovative projects and impactful partnerships that have since been recognized by organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, Second Nature, and Ashoka U. Just this year, PSU was named by the Sierra Club as the “coolest” school in Oregon for its sustainability programs. 

3. More than 25 PSU professors and staff from departments across the University contributed to this book. Why is interdisciplinary teaching and research so central to PSU’s sustainability identity?

From the beginning, faculty and students from multiple departments and disciplines across the University have come together to develop PSU’s sustainability programs. This broad engagement reflects our recognition that the complex challenges that face society cannot be understood or addressed by any one discipline or area of expertise. PSU has taken a “problem-based” approach to sustainability research and teaching, seeking to better understand and address real-world challenges; such an approach has both demanded and encouraged faculty and students to work together across disciplinary boundaries. PSU’s interdisciplinary Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Ph.D. program focused on Ecosystem Services in Urbanizing Regions is just one example of a program that has offered opportunities for faculty and students to work together with community partners to address real world problems. 

4. What are some of your favorite examples from this book about students and faculty collaborating with local organizations, businesses, and government agencies to address local sustainability challenges?

One of most exciting things about this book is the incredible diversity of examples it provides of the ways that PSU and community partners have worked together; it is hard to pick just a few! There are partnerships that examine food justice issues, advance sustainable community development with a focus on aging populations, address neighborhood-level sustainability priorities, explore the potential for public interest design, work with communities across the country to accelerate urban sustainability—the list goes on. To learn more, read the book!

5. This is the first book in Greenleaf Publishing’s Sustainable Solutions Series. What will the next book in the series be about?

While Volume I focused on how PSU has built capacity to engage with community partners, Volume II, University-Community Partnerships, focuses on innovative methods and best practices in developing university-community partnerships.  Within this volume, the case studies present a variety of paths to establishing collaborative partnerships. Community-based methods from a wide variety of disciplines illustrate that practice, theory, and teaching should not be held as mutually exclusive, nor in a hierarchal relationship, but as equal elements that at any moment can serve as the generator for the others. The public nature of these investigations allows knowledge to be disseminated, challenged, and developed in a collective and comprehensive way with the community itself. This is the foundational premise of Portland State University’s motto and mission—to “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” Community-based methods have remained at the heart of the teaching, research, and service practiced by the members of PSU since its inception. Volume II focuses on how PSU has applied those values and methodologies of knowledge production based on community partnerships under the rubric of sustainability across multiple disciplines.

Purchase a copy of the Let Knowledge Serve the City or University-Community Partnerships.