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Rust to Green helps upstate cities plan sustainable futures

Cornell faculty and students are working with the cities of Utica and Binghamton, N.Y., to promote green practices in their urban renewal plans and create a model for viable sustainable growth in other cities.

Rust to Green New York State, based in Cornell's Department of Landscape Architecture, has been developing partnerships and networks within each city, while collecting data and disseminating information on how to grow resilient, vibrant, sustainable communities for the 21st century.

"I want to make Utica one of the greenest cities in upstate New York, and our affiliation with Cornell University is going to do that," Mayor David Roefaro said recently.

The Rust to Green project is targeting the needs and potentials of seven upstate cities, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Schenectady. A 2007 Brookings Institution report identified these among 60 former industrial cities nationwide as having "high potential for renewed prosperity." The project was activated in fall 2009 with funding from a three-year federal Hatch Act Formula Grant.

Utica is enacting its recent Master Plan by making Rust to Green "a major initiative -- they're redesigning streets and infrastructure to address water quality, looking at land use in the city and remediation strategies for urban land" such as gardens for locally grown food, said Paula Horrigan, professor of landscape architecture.

"We're positioning the city to be very responsive to this process," she said. "A lot of things have branched out from this initial concept into a network of ideas and projects."

A spring Rust to Green workshop class involved 35 students from the ILR School and Colleges of Architecture, Art and Planning and of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and a lab course and a conference are being held this fall. Faculty leading the project are Horrigan, Deni Ruggeri and lecturer Jamie Vanucchi, landscape architecture; Scott Peters, education; and Shorna Broussard, natural resources.

"One of our goals is to bring more faculty researchers and colleagues into this, because we can't do it all," Horrigan said.

Students and faculty have been hands on in Utica, redesigning parks, planning a community workshop series on green practices and working on proposals, including the revitalization of Genesee Street and a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hunger-Free Communities application, part of a food policy initiative linking local farmers with the community's needs, Vanucchi said. Students in her Water and Land course are working on inventory, analysis and design development for the local waterfront access plan.

"We want to match [students' interests] up with projects going on in the city," Vanucchi said.

The Cornell group has been in regular attendance at city meetings, and six graduate students conducted action research and weekly public outreach on the State Office Plaza all summer, promoting the project and soliciting community members' input.

"We're now looking at municipal projects in a new way," said Bob Sullivan, Utica's community revitalization coordinator and Urban Renewal Agency director. "We're looking at storm water mitigation, permeable pavement and all sorts of things that could be considered green."

A regional college consortium (including Cornell, Colgate University, Utica College, Hamilton College and Mohawk Valley Community College) will have a visible community presence in Utica's Rust to Green sustainability hub, the Green Century Building now under renovation on Genesee Street.

Binghamton, by comparison, has "more going on in terms of sustainability planning. We're providing some research and mapping support," Vanucchi said. "It's not going to be the same in every community. Every city is different, in stages of development [and] of recovery."

"The goal is to work with all the [upstate] cities, if possible," Horrigan said. "There is so much happening on the federal scale that it is changing the dynamic at the local level."

Sullivan said that Rust to Green and Cornell's involvement have brought about "a rethinking of the entire strategy that the city of Utica has for turning the city around. We're building a model from the ground up of what a municipality can do to reverse the trend from decline and make it grow toward prosperity."

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