The Oberlin Project

Matthew Lester
Downtown Oberlin, Ohio. The city is formed around a 13 acre square.

Oberlin, Ohio─a city of approximately 10,000─is located fourteen miles from Lake Erie, thirty-five miles from Cleveland, and─ as a a sober crow would fly it─84 eighty-four miles from Detroit. Situated on the till left when the last glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, Oberlin is in the geographic center of the rusty industrial heart of America. The town was founded in 1832 by do-gooders who drove out the natives, bears, and wolves, and tried to improve the “tougher wildlife”—the hard drinking frontiersmen who preferred the backwoods to the comforts of civilization.

The city grew up around the college which was named after an Alsatian pastor, John Frederic Oberlin, who was famous for saving souls and improving the local infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals1. Early in its history, Oberlin College accepted African-Americans and women as full students and became a busy stopover on the Underground Railroad. Oberlin is described as the “town that started the Civil War” by rescuing runaway slave John Price from Kentucky bounty-hunters in 1858.2 Ever since, Oberlinians have prided themselves on being a step ahead, marching to the rhythm of a more progressive drummer.

The city is formed around a 13 acre square, named for the Tappan brothers─New York City businessmen and abolitionists who supported the college in its early years. Oberlin once had six downtown grocery stores, two drug stores, an urban trolley system, and rail connections to anywhere in the U.S. As a student here in the 1890s, Charles Martin Hall discovered how to separate aluminum from bauxite and started the Alcoa Company. The downtown retains a quaint 19th century charm, but merchants selling anything other than beer, pizza, or coffee struggle to make a go of it in the face of competition from the likes of Walmart. While Oberlin College and its Conservatory of Music anchor the economy, and although the town also has the largest air-traffic control center outside a major airport in the U.S. and a scattering of other businesses, the total does not add up to a robust economy. North of Oberlin, two rust-belt cities have been drained by neglect and disinvestment characteristic of American urban policy after World War II. (If a ragtag bunch of foreign terrorists had done one thousandth as much, our patriotic vengeance would have known no limits. Alas, we did it to ourselves, and so we applauded the footloose brigands who left ruined towns and shattered communities from Flint and Detroit to Youngstown and beyond). Driving South from Oberlin down State highway 58, it’s mostly farmland and scattered woods.


Scott Goldsmith
View of Oberlin’s West College Street.

Looking ahead a few decades, Oberlin and every other place on Earth will face the consequences of rapid climate change. If business as usual continues unimpeded, the planet will be ~2°C hotter by mid-century. Recent evidence suggests possible temperature increases of 4-6°C by the year 2100 or even sooner. Somewhere along that trajectory, we will lose control and many things will come undone, starting with water and food shortages, but eventually—perhaps sooner than later—entire economies and political systems. Nearly everything on Earth behaves or works differently at higher temperatures: ecologies collapse, forests burn, metals expand, concrete runways buckle, and rivers dry up, and people curse and kill more often. No place will be spared. Oberlin will experience its share of hotter and less predictable weather, larger storms, bigger floods, longer and more severe droughts, changing seasons, and shifting ecologies. Before long, we will see an influx of folks from southern states moving out of harm’s way as they move towards Great Lakes water and a slightly more benign climate. They won’t be simply opportunity seekers, rather refugees like the Okies fleeing the dust bowl in the 1930s.

Given the vacuum of leadership on climate and energy policy in Washington and in Columbus, Ohio, what can be done in this particular place that has stood so firmly for human dignity, racial justice, gender equality, and a long list of progressive causes? Climate change has become the great uniter of what were once regarded as separate movements. The fact is that, whatever one’s cause, it’s a lost cause in dramatic and steadily more capricious climate conditions.

In the past decade, discussion around these issues led to the 2009 creation of the Oberlin Project. The Project is a joint effort of the City and the College to develop a model of “full spectrum sustainability.” In plain English, those words mean something like a jailbreak from the conventional silos, boundaries, pigeonholes, disciplines, and bureaucracies by which we have organized governments, economies, education, social movements, and entire worldviews. It is an attempt to “connect the dots” between the various parts of sustainability and thereby give form and operational vitality to the word “systems” in the public realm, and to extend the time horizon by which we judge our successes and failures and our profits and losses. In practical terms, it means having lunch with many different kinds of people and attending lots of meetings to bridge the chasms that divide us by issue-areas, race, class, and political affiliation. In short, we assume that systemic failures that have led us to the present crisis will require systems-level responses, smarter policies, and alert citizens acting with foresight and civic acumen.


Dale Preston
Downtown Oberlin.

Specifically, the Oberlin Project is a joint effort to create an integrated response to the many challenges posed by climate change around seven practical goals:
• Developing a 13-acre district in the downtown (the Green Arts District) at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinumnd level as the main driver for community economic revitalization. The District will include the restoration of a famous art museum (completed), restoration and expansion of a performing arts center, construction of a hotel, conference center and business complex (2015). The major goals in the redevelopment of the District are to create local employment, income growth, community development, and establish a new benchmark for community-scale green development.

• Create new businesses in energy efficiency and solar deployment, food and agriculture, and the sustainable use of local resources. In the transition to carbon-neutral sustainability, we propose to create and expand locally owned businesses and promote widespread ownership that spreads wealth throughout the city and thereby increases economic resilience.

• Shift the City and College to renewable energy sources, radically improve efficiency, sharply reduce our carbon emissions, and improve our economy in the process. City residents and businesses presently spend ~$15 million each year on electricity and natural gas—twice as much as we would need to spend if we were as efficient as is now economically advantageous and technologically feasible. We propose to reduce energy use by improving efficiency (saving millions of dollars), building a local renewable-energy economy that creates jobs and ownership, and growing the local economy while buffering Oberlin from rising energy prices and sudden cost increases.

• Establish a robust local foods economy to meet a growing percentage of our consumption while supporting local farmers. Presently, only a minuscule fraction of what we eat is grown in northeast Ohio. As with local energy consumption, money unnecessarily flows out of the community. We propose to expand the market for locally grown foods and improve the local farm economy, create new employment opportunities in farming (including summer jobs for teens) and food processing, while improving the taste and nutritional quality of food we eat.

• Create an educational alliance between the College, the Oberlin schools, a nearby vocational school, and Lorain County Community College focused on education appropriate to the challenges and opportunities of sustainability. The transition to sustainability and a more resilient economy poses large challenges to educators at all levels. What does the rising generation need to know to live well and purposefully in the decades ahead? How do we teach them to think in systems?

• Broaden and deepen the conversation on sustainability to include all of the humanities, the arts, the sciences, and the social sciences.

• Collaborate with other projects and communities across the U.S. that are also developing sustainably by integrating food, agriculture, energy, sustainable economic development, education, public policy, community engagement, health, and transportation.

With the onset of rapid climate change, our choice is not whether we do such things, but whether we do them as an integrated, well-thought-out system in which the parts reinforce the resilience and prosperity of the entire community, or otherwise as a series of disjointed, one-off, overly expensive, ad hoc responses to external crises, supply interruptions, and volatile prices. The Oberlin Project decided to situate itself in the “space” between the College, the City, and the community, and we intend to do our work within the next few years to make sustainability the default─and then get out of the way. That is to say that we, as a project, aim to be catalytic and to set processes in motion, rather than establishing ourselves as a permanent fixture.

In short, we aim to join issues normally kept separate into a system in which each of the parts reinforces the health and resilience of the larger community. To that end, we have organized the project’s board and its subcommittees around development of a local food economy, energy, policy and finance, community economic development, education, and data analysis. To avoid creating yet more silos, we seek to foster collaboration to find synergies where 2 + 2 = 22, not just 4. We propose, in other words, to give practical meaning to the idea of systems in the day-to-day affairs of the City, the College, and the local economy. Early on, we circulated Donella Meadows’ paper, Places to Intervene in the System, to begin a dialogue about where, when, and how to effectively intervene in the system(s) of the City and the College.3 But the fact is that there is no one place to intervene that works in every city, in all circumstances, on every issue, all of the time. Strategies for change accordingly must be flexible: calibrated to locality, situation, culture, and institutional contexts.

One of the milestones of the Oberlin Project is the completion of the college plan for climate neutrality by 2025. The Lewis Center, Oberlin College.

Describing what “kind of problem a city is,” Jane Jacobs wrote that they are “problems in organized complexity . . . present[ing] situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.”4 In responding to the challenges of sustainability and resilience in the face of rapid climate change, cities are becoming even more complex. In addition to providing the typical range of services, most cities now have offices of sustainability, climate action plans, and plans for smart-growth and eco-districts. But they will have to do a great deal more.

Effective responses to rapid climate destabilization will require carefully designed policies that improve energy efficiency, beginning with the large energy users in the commercial building and manufacturing sectors. It will require public and private incentives to encourage rapid deployment of renewable energy, taking full advantage of a growing array of ongoing technological advances, including those in energy distribution (“smart grid”). It will require better information, beginning with accurate and publicly accessible models of physical flows, carbon emissions, financial data, and public attitudes. It will require us to restore local/urban/regional agriculture to replace declining corporate farm production in distant heat and drought stressed areas. Effective responses to changing patterns of rainfall that range between drought and massive storms will require rebuilding infrastructure and water storage systems, upgrading building codes to accommodate higher winds and temperatures and larger floods, and upgrading emergency response capabilities. Communities must also adopt policies and laws that promote sustainable economic development and require full-cost prices.

In short, we will have to redesign a great deal of the local and urban physical infrastructure that worked in the brief age of cheap fossil fuels, along with the policies, tax codes, subsidies and other incentives that made fossil fuels profitable for a few while making changes hard for everyone else. The challenges are daunting and long-term, but the technological know-how, design capabilities, architectural skills, urban planning capabilities, engineering, and the idea-capital necessary to the transition already exist. And we have yet to build a citizenry that understands the scale and duration of the challenge and what it will require of them.

A more difficult challenge is that of redesigning organizations, institutions, city governments, corporations, and─yes─even colleges and universities as “learning organizations” and recalibrating their behavior to better match biophysical realities.5 Full spectrum sustainability is neither a more clever way of doing the same old things nor is it tinkering with the coefficients of change. It is, rather, a change in the structure of the systems that have rendered our future precarious. Full spectrum sustainability requires that we learn to see the world—and ourselves—whole, and apply intelligence, foresight, generosity of spirit, and civic competence to avoid unsolvable dilemmas and solve problems before they become full-blown crises.

The Oberlin Project Today

So, how far has the Oberlin Project come? In the first three years, the milestones include:
• renovation of an nationally prominent Art Museum in the Green Arts District at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Gold level;
• completion of a $17 million downtown housing and commercial development (USGBC-Gold);
• renovation of an historic downtown theater;
• selection as one of 18 Clinton Climate Positive projects worldwide (now part of the C-40 cities);
• deployment of a 3MW output photovoltaic system;
• a 90%+ carbon-free municipal electric supply (2013);
• creation of a community board focused economic renewal, policy, development of a local foods economy, and business creation;
• completion of a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded study on the regional transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy;
• completion of the City Climate Action Plan with 50%+ reduction of carbon emissions by 2015;
• and completion of the College plan for climate neutrality by 2025.

We have begun work on a $30 million Platinum (Platinum is the highest level for the USGBC building rating system) + hotel and conference center that will be completed in 2015. Total spending to date for all parts of the project from investment, new market tax credits, and philanthropy total approximately $60 million, with another ~$30 million in the final planning stage.

In the larger perspective of time and geography, Oberlin is a very small drop in a very large sea. In that respect, the Oberlin Project is a bench-lab scale experiment: small enough to be agile and instructive, but large enough to be significant in the wider scheme of things. We are the product of a unique combination of history and institutional capabilities that predispose us to give priority to issues of justice, to harness the power of the arts and music in the cause of human betterment, and to think across the conventional divisions of departments and disciplines. Like salt in stew, we are small by volume but we can and often do change the flavor of issues beyond our borders. In this instance that requires that we become a worthy model and focused catalyst for change at larger scales─helping to advance the bottom-up movement of transition towns, green cities, and eco-districts that may one day provoke an outbreak of sanity and purpose in state capitals and national government. For one example, we have already helped to start a dialogue with colleagues at Case Western University, Michigan State University, several large foundations, and investors about connecting rust-belt cities from Flint, Michigan to Youngstown Ohio in a regional sustainable development collaborative focused on smart growth, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture.

The Oberlin Project is many things depending on one’s vantage point. It is:
• a small city scale experiment in the art and science of integrated solutions;
• an educational experiment engaging students in the design and development of a model of integrated sustainability that pertains to virtually every department and discipline;
• a model of homegrown, post-cheap fossil fuel sustainable economic revitalization;
• an improved foods system providing opportunities for good work in a healthier community with more physical activity, wholesome food, cleaner air and water and without toxic chemicals;
• a community-scale model of resilience that reduces vulnerability to outside disruption whether from malice, technological accidents, or rapid climate change;6
• and for the future citizens of Oberlin, a source of pride that this small community once again stood up when it counted.

The Oberlin Project is all of these things. But most important, it is an exercise in applied hope based on a commitment to make the world more fair and decent while preserving a beautiful and livable Earth. And if we don’t stand for such things, what do we stand for?