Forging New Paths to Social Sustainability

August 5, 2016

A conference hosted recently by Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain had participants look at how to blaze new paths in sustainable education and community engagement — and even took them into the field to get their hands (or rather, shoes) dirty.

The Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, in partnership with the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability, College of Design, and College of Engineering, with funding from the National Science Foundation, hosted the Paths to Social Sustainability conference earlier this summer. The goal of the conference was to identify ways to develop stronger and more coordinated social sustainability research, teaching, and action agendas for the Southeast.  

The three-day event was attended by Tech faculty, staff, and students; industry and community partners; government partners from Atlanta and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and representatives from other universities. The conference showcased Georgia Tech expertise as well as that of peers and partners in related fields. Topics included the need for adaptable designs, plans, and regulations for future conditions caused by climate, weather, and extreme events, as well as resilience and social sustainability. 

One popular component of the conference was a journey through the Emerald Corridor, a seven-mile stretch of the Atlanta BeltLine abutting Proctor Creek. Decades of neglect and illegal dumping have polluted the creek and created several environmental hazards, making this one of the most contaminated waterways in the metro Atlanta region.

“We saw firsthand the impact of an ancient combined sewer system on community functioning and health,” said Iris Tien, assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We passed routes to schools with cracked sidewalks, or no sidewalks at all. We passed parts of Proctor Creek with water so polluted it not only should not be drunk, it should not even be touched. These elements — the water system, and transportation infrastructure — are all part of the daily functioning of the communities they are designed to support. This is not a question of if these systems can survive a disaster, but about the challenges communities face on a day-to-day basis.”

Many people, even those who have been at Tech for some time, did not even know the Emerald Corridor was there, much less have an awareness of its current state. 

“Meeting community leaders and hearing directly from them brings awareness and perspective about life near Georgia Tech that is not apparent from news outlets or politicians,” said Linda Wills, associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who participated in the conference. 

The conference also featured keynote addresses by sustainable community experts, roundtable discussions, and cross-site panels broadcast live online. Small group sessions gave participants the opportunity to identify key actions to work on moving forward. Takeaways included exploring the creation of a community-based Institutional Review Board so Institute research projects could be vetted by the community and incorporating social sustainability into K-12 curricula. 

“The panels and the working sessions were particularly insightful and engaging because of the dialogue that occurred,” Wills said. 

The next step for the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain will be to create a draft agenda for social sustainability in the Southeast — and Atlanta in particular — and then to support working groups for implementation. The Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain also hopes to connect faculty with surrounding communities and resources for their courses and research.

Serve-Learn-Sustain is an institutional effort to equip Georgia Tech students to learn and serve around the theme “creating sustainable communities,” through engagement with content and context. The initiative was developed as a Quality Enhancement Plan, as a key component to Tech’s reaffirmation of accreditation in 2015. 

Cory Hopkins serves as the Communications Specialist with the Office of Undergraduate Education, supporting all the OUE units under the supervision of the Associate Vice Provost.