Seven student groups, two community partners, one grand experiment

Community-based learning is nothing new at Portland State. Since the inception of the University Studies program at PSU almost two decades ago, classes have been working on community issues in and around Portland. But what once was limited to a Senior Capstone experience is becoming more pervasive throughout the course catalog, where disciplines as varied as business and graphic design are now working with community partners to tackle actual issues. 

In some ways, Barry Messer’s fall Urban Studies and Planning 313 class, Environmental Issues of Urban Planning, is a turning point in the evolution of community-based learning at PSU. 

Messer, a retired associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning who is still active on campus, called the class a “grand experiment.”

What made it unique?

“We were able to bring community-based learning, which is a high-impact educational practice, to a large class in order to meet a community need while providing students with the opportunity to apply their learning in a real-world setting,” says Jacob Sherman, sustainability curriculum coordinator for the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, who worked with Messer on creating the class. 

The class saw seven student groups take on research projects for two community partners, the Living Cully neighborhood group and the PSU Campus Sustainability Office. Topics ranged from how to stimulate economic development while preventing gentrification in Northeast Portland’s diverse Cully neighborhood to identifying new possible uses of waste materials coming from campus art, theater and architecture classes. 

One group of eight students researched the feasibility of a community land bank for the Cully neighborhood. Their report to the Living Cully organization includes case studies on land banking from Michigan and Baltimore, leads on funding sources, research on the role of land banking in preventing gentrification, related economic development studies and recommendations for full-spectrum planning around the land to be purchased. Three other groups took up other related topics of sustainability and economic development. 

Suggestions from the three student groups working with the Campus Sustainability Office ranged from a partnership with area elementary schools to reuse waste materials in large-scale art projects to developing a district-scale grey water municipality to reuse stormwater in multiple buildings. 

But the experimental nature of the class spread beyond the sheer number of teams and projects. It picks up a continuing thread of community-based learning that, like sustainability, spans departments and majors at PSU.

The Cully land bank concept, for example, came from recommendations made in a gradate research project by six Master of Urban and Regional Planning students, a report called “Not in Cully” that was released in June. That report identified a range of anti-displacement and anti-gentrification strategies to help low-income residents and people of color remain in the Cully neighborhood. Recommendations from that report ranged from a land bank for affordable housing to job training for residents to grants for neighborhood business expansions. 

In addition to the research contributed by Messer's class, an upper-division business class will add their knowledge to Cully’s efforts by analyzing the financial side of the land bank equation starting in January. 

Project iteration across multiple classes and disciplines provides a highly relevant educational opportunity for students while at the same time delivering better, more comprehensively realized results for partners. 

As the PSU Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative continues to expand and evolve, expect to see even more cross-campus engagement.