City of Victoria looks to students for help on climate action

UVic environmental, engineering classes investigate ways to put plans into practice

A group of University of Victoria environmental studies students looked at transforming Government Street into a pedestrian mall

For a small, cash-strapped city department, the promise of free expertise fuelled a partnership with the University of Victoria.

The relationship proved symbiotic.

Victoria has committed to reducing its community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by 2020. And fourth-year environmental studies students needed real-world experience to round out their theoretical training – and their resumes.

“It’s that perfect situation where everybody wins,” said Roy Brooke, Victoria’s director of sustainability.

“The students are bringing their energy and enthusiasm to bear in proposing solutions, so then we can pull them off the shelf as we implement things.”

The city already has a list of actions to accomplish its climate goals. Fleshing out an implementation plan for each one, however, takes time and resources.

“The city’s resources are tight and stretched, so for us, it’s an amazing way to get something done that we need done,” Brooke said.

The environmental students presented their plans at a recent climate expo held at city hall. They included strategies to transform Government Street into a pedestrian mall, draft-proof windows in apartment buildings and set up a bike-share program.

More than 300 engineering students also attended the expo and held a trade-show style presentation of their ideas to increase the number of bicycle commuters.

“The students were extremely highly motivated,” said instructor Karena Shaw, associate professor at UVic’s School of Environmental Studies. “I had to shift my teaching away from content and a lot more toward skills-based stuff, like writing clearly and communicating complex ideas for a popular audience instead of for academics.”

University partnerships, like the one with the city, are definitely on the rise, Shaw said.

“I don’t know how far the trend is going to go, but I certainly know that UVic is putting a lot more emphasis behind it.”

As well as all the benefits they bring, however, these partnerships can be problematic.

There is some fear that offering inexpensive, high-quality research will take away paid work from professionals in the field, admitted Shaw.

“Unions have rightfully raised questions about the implications of that,” she said. “We have to keep an eye on that.”

Shaw follows a few rules when evaluating potential partnerships. First, she asks whether the organization seeking student work should have the capacity to pay. Second, she asks whether the project benefits primarily the wider community or the organization itself.

“On the community energy and emissions plan that we worked on, the effort is really to get the community to take hold and lead these projects, so I thought this is really an appropriate way to apply student energy,” she said.

“In the end, the consistency with which we can provide these kind of services is not going to be strong enough, and the quality is not going to be consistent enough to displace paid employment.”

Climate change strategies: conception to implementation

To meet its community’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, Victoria obtained customized software that quantifies the costs and benefits of various strategies, such as planting trees or insulating windows.

“This is leading-edge stuff,” Brooke said of the software developed with grant money from B.C. Hydro.

Next, he vetted the options with industry stakeholders.

“They can be the reality check. If I say I’m going to double-glaze all the windows in the city, they might say, ‘hang on, that’s never going to happen,’ and they come up with more plausible scenarios.”

Once the city developed a list of realistic actions, they shopped them to environmental studies students at the University of Victoria. Each student group tackled a different action item and developed a detailed implementation plan.

Early next year Brooke will present the options to city council to determine which plans it would like to advance.

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