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Auggies traverse the concrete jungle

ecotripHow can a major metropolitan area — with all its concrete, glass, and steel — be green? How can it be eco-friendly and implement measures that will ensure its healthy future? That is precisely what students in the Sustainable Cities summer course are attempting to discover. Sociology professors Nancy Fischer and Lars Christiansen are leading a group of students through Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia to examine different facets of sustainability in an urban context. The course is a faculty-led seminar through Augsburg Abroad.

Looking at food systems, waste and recycling programs, transportation, public policy, and community development, students will see how nature and the city can coexist. According to Fischer, the purpose of the course is to learn what’s being done and how to promote sustainability in North America. “It’s easy to get down and say there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “We want students to know what can be done and hope they see what they can do in their own city and on campus.”

Fischer got the idea while teaching Human Community, Modern Metropolis at Augsburg two years ago. She shared an article on peak oil, the theory that predicted the terminal decline of the world’s petroleum production, with the class. “The students thought the idea that we would run out of oil was crazy,” Fischer said. Ensuing class discussion about the world’s dependence on oil led Fischer to examine urban efforts to “go green.”

At the same time, she and Christiansen began to see reports on Vancouver, ranked consistently at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s livability survey. Vancouver is a leader in sustainability measures, particularly with regard to urban planning, public transit, waste management, and food production. Based on their shared interest in urban sustainability the two began discussing the idea of a course to explore Vancouver’s initiatives.

The class began its journey on a flight from Minneapolis to Portland. After their arrival, students and instructors will use public transportation, bicycles, and their own two feet to get around. In each city Christiansen and half of the 13 students in the class will use bicycles to travel. Fischer will join the remaining students, getting around on foot or by light rail train, bus, or streetcar. Fischer said, “We won’t be getting in a car for 20 days.”

While in Portland, the class will stay in Epler Hall at Portland State University. Epler Hall is Portland’s first mixed-use LEED certified building. The design includes “stack” ventilation and a rainwater harvesting system that is used for onsite irrigation and toilet flushing. The building was designed to integrate new technologies with wind and sun for climate-responsive heating and cooling systems.

The class will travel from Portland to Vancouver by Amtrak. From its green building strategy to energy conservation measures including using methane gas captured from the landfill to generate heat and electricity, Vancouver is a leader in urban sustainability. The city has 40 km of off-street bike routes and 393 km of on-street routes with 258 cyclists’ right-of-way buttons and 1,000 bike racks. There are five producer-only farmers markets in Vancouver that allow for the purchase of locally grown food year round.

Portland has now surpassed Vancouver on sustainability measures. In the downtown area, all public transit including light rail, bus, and streetcar, is fare-less. Portland also has more bicycles than any U.S. city. When the professors visited the city to prepare for the course, Fischer said they timed bicycle sightings in the downtown area. “We saw a bicycle every 30 seconds,” she said.

The class will meet with policy makers, university professors, and community organizers to discuss sustainability efforts in both cities. They will also have an opportunity to participate in several bike rides including the Critical Mass demonstration in Vancouver and the Night Ride in Portland. Beginning in early evening, the Night Ride’s costumed or pajama-clad riders take off from the Portland Train Station. They watch bike-themed movie shorts at stop one, have a disco party at stop two, and enjoy an all-you-can-eat midnight donut feast at the finish line. This 15-mile street ride benefits the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) which promotes bicycle use and works to improve cycling conditions in Oregon.

For more information on Augsburg Abroad programs including faculty-led seminars go to

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