Sustainable economic strategies spur engaged research interest

A former Bethlehem Steel site being rehabilitated as a business park in Lackawanna, New York, stands as an example of sustainable redevelopment and the impact a local government can have on climate change.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz discussed the redevelopment project with Cornell faculty at a May 14 lunch roundtable in Rice Hall.

Erie County officials were invited to campus to share county initiatives focused on sustainability and economic growth, quality of life and building strong communities. Faculty attendees joined roundtable discussions led by Poloncarz and Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte.

“Strong partnerships and sustainable practices are essential to progress, giving more people a say in their community and making responsible use of our resources to effect change that benefits generations yet to come,” Poloncarz said.

The event was organized “as a launching point to further community-engaged research and learning collaborations with Erie County,” seeding ideas for potential projects involving Cornell students and faculty, said Basil Safi, executive director of the Office of Engagement Initiatives.

The Lackawanna site was prioritized in Initiatives for a Smart Economy (I4SE), an economic development strategy Erie County enacted in 2013 and updated last year. I4SE 2.0 contains 71 initiatives and is focused on inclusion and creating shared opportunities for all residents, to address persistent poverty and underemployment.

Max Zhang, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said he is following up with Erie County officials on possible projects such as assisting in the planning process for carbon reduction at the community level.

“I can envision that students team up with community partners to address specific challenges they are facing,” said Zhang, who received the 2017 Engaged Scholar Prize.

Rebecca Brenner, a lecturer at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, began a project in spring 2017 in Buffalo, New York, on improving communications during an emergency for that city’s diverse, multilingual refugee population, and creating an emergency notification plan with nonprofit resettlement agencies as community partners.

During the project’s pilot phase, students reviewed best practices and created a survey to identify how emergencies are communicated in Buffalo. The survey launches this summer, said Brenner, an Atkinson Center faculty fellow and 2017-18 Engaged Faculty Fellow.

Erie County has about 300 current strategic initiatives led by county departments with community partners. They include fostering hiring of disadvantaged residents in high-poverty areas for construction jobs amid Buffalo’s building boom; exploring the feasibility of a new convention center to spur tourism; creating an agribusiness park in rural southern Erie County; supporting health and human services agencies and energy programs targeting low-income households; and infrastructure and environmental remediation in county parks.

“I was quite impressed and intrigued by what they are doing in Buffalo because of the parallels with Rust to Green Binghamton,” said Shorna Allred, associate professor of natural resources and 2018 Engaged Scholar Prize recipient. “We are similarly trying to bring together a partnership of people to work on sustainability issues across the city and Broome County. Erie County has made great progress in this regard, and I shared the materials with our partners in Binghamton.”

Hosted by the Office of Engagement Initiatives and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, “Building Equitable, Sustainable and Vibrant Local Communities in Erie County” was co-organized with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County and Cornell in Buffalo, a hub for ILR School research and extension work with a network of community partners.

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Lindsey Knewstub