• Denise Nelson, PE, ENV SP, LEED AP

“Town and Gown Partnerships: Solving Sustainability Issues Together”

The Berkley Group sponsored the event hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the American Public Works Association on March 1. Drew Williams, Shaina Schaffer, and Denise Nelson attended and engaged in the discussion.

The event, organized with support from Fairfax County and George Mason University, focused on partnerships between local governments and academia to support sustainability projects. This was the first public event held at the recently completed Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC), a learning center, research facility, and event space on the Occoquan River. The event concluded with a tour of the facility and sustainability features.

Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross opened with a warm welcome sharing local history, successes, and optimism for future collaborations across municipal departments and with elected officials, academia, and other stakeholders. Dann Sklarew, Associate Director at PEREC, discussed opportunities to collaborate with professors and students at GMU.

Kristin Baja, USDN Climate Resilience Officer, shared lessons learned from her previous role with the City of Baltimore and described resources and support available from the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN). Angie De Soto, the Virginia Tech Sustainability Institute Director, discussed opportunities to partner with Virginia Tech and shared lessons learned on building relationships with professors and managing work performed by students. Matt Rodrigues, City of Eugene Traffic Engineer and chair of APWA’s national Center for Sustainability, discussed programs in Oregon that give students the chance to get professional experience while providing necessary support staff to municipalities. Eric Forbes, Fairfax County Complex Manager, described the County’s staff employee development strategies and a few local sustainability initiatives.

In academia, students have the opportunity for “experiential learning” and “service learning” as part of their coursework in addition to more traditional internships and co-op jobs. These are essential for developing workplace skills and transitioning from campus to a career. Local governments can benefit from collaborating with academia by getting supplemental staff and researchers to help complete projects and reporting. Academic partnerships may provide opportunities for additional collaborations with non-profits – this can promote stakeholder involvement and provide avenues for grant funding. The main takeaway: we can look to one another for creative ways to collaborate and maximize knowledge and capital resources.

On the tour, we learned about the building’s sustainable design features, such as directing rainwater to a series of rain gardens and a cistern, porous pavers, an exterior living wall, and greenscaped amphitheater. There’s a water table on the riverside patio for demonstrating issues in waterways, such as increased runoff volume and velocity due to impervious land cover. In the future, they plan to add flood markers indicating the levels of historic and predicted floods. Dr. Chris Jones, Director, led us on a tour of the classrooms and laboratories. The GMU website explains the “PEREC focuses on Potomac River restoration and local sustainability practices, so that the local ecosystem will be healthy for years to come. We translate our research into award winning and engaging field programs for K-12 students and the larger community.”

The Berkley Group encourages these types of collaborations and would be happy to speak with you about opportunities to support your municipality.

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