University of Minnesota
Greenlight members examine maps, drawings, and ideas in preparation for their upcoming charrette January 29 and 30. The brainstorming sessions, aimed at producing ideas for a new housing development in St. Paul, are open to the public.
Photo: Patrick O'Leary
U student groups join forces on community sustainability project
By Rick Moore
Say this about members of the student group Greenlight: They’re well on their way to filling up the little cart at the end of this month.
More about the “little cart” reference later. For now, this is a story about the students of Greenlight, their dedication to sustainability, and how their annual community project has become a model of interdisciplinary collaboration.
An action-based group
Students in the College of Design founded Greenlight in 2002. Their focus on sustainability has taken various forms, from hosting the weekly film series “Greenscreen” to managing the composting program in Rapson Hall.
These days, they put more emphasis on making Greenlight an action-based group, says member Amber Sausen, a third-year graduate student in architecture and sustainability. “There are plenty of places you can learn about sustainability," she says. "We are trying to do something about it within the college, within our own personal lives as students in the college, and then through our community-based ‘charrettes.’”
A charrette (see sidebar) is essentially a design brainstorming session, and this year’s Greenlight charrette will benefit Sparc, a community development organization in St. Paul. Elizabeth Turner, a Greenlight member and co-coordinator of the charrette, became familiar with Sparc as a research assistant for CURA this past summer.
Sparc recently acquired three acres of land next to Willow Reserve on St. Paul’s North End, and is looking at options for a future housing development on the site.
Its goal—and the purpose of this year’s charrette—is to develop ideas for a unique and forward-thinking development project “that embodies ideas of sustainability in the broadest way possible.”
“Sparc was telling us about their dreams for the site, and the more we heard the more we realized we are not capable of fully developing ideas for this on our own,” says Sausen.
That’s when Greenlight decided to collaborate with other student groups to bring a wider range of expertise and interest to the effort.
“We put out the call for co-conspirators, as it were, and had a lot of response, which is pretty exciting,” Sausen says. Other student groups involved with the project include Engineers Without Borders UMN, the Minnesota student chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (MASLA-sc), and Green Biz.
The latter, an organization founded last spring in the Carlson School of Management, “primarily focuses on the business aspects of being green,” says member Ben Strasheim. The group is crafting a feasibility study for the Sparc development, investigating topics such as area demographics, economic needs, and what kinds of housing and retail are in the area.
Jumping on the charrette
According to Amber Sausen and other sources, the word “charrette” comes from the French word for "little cart." At the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris during the 19th century, professors would circulate with little carts to collect final drawings from their students for competitions. Sometimes students would jump on the "charrette" to finish their drawings right at the deadline.
The student chapter of MASLA is involved in both site and some regional-scale research, including topography, zoning, and city drainage infrastructure, says member Prescott Morrill.
“We were able to receive very generous funding because we were applying as multiple groups that were working together to put on this event,” Sausen says.
A cart full of ideas
The charrette, which means “little cart” in French, will take place on January 29 and 30.
Ultimately, the event will be a chance for U students—and the community members who attend—to brainstorm truly fresh ideas, unshackled by the constraints facing working professionals.
“I use the word dream a lot, but I really think that’s an important part of the creative, playful process that can happen in a charrette,” says Sausen. “It doesn’t have to be ‘sustainability is going to save the world’; it can be fun, too.”
The end product will be a large, narrative collage of words and images, says Turner, “a bunch of ideas but formulated in a consistent way.”
“It’s good experience for all of us,” she adds, “and hopefully it’ll turn out to be a good product for Sparc to use in the future.”
For more information or to sign up to attend “Beyond Green: The Willow Reserve Design Charrette,” visit Greenlight.