Oberlin, Ohio: Laboratory for a New Way of Life

An environmental-studies professor tries to reinvent his town for a future of scarcity

Lisa DeJong for The Chronicle

David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College, is the driving force behind a project to make the city of Oberlin a sustainable prototype.
November 06, 2011

This northern Ohio college town is barely a blip on a map, far away from national centers of power. And yet people here are working on a plan that could make it a model for fundamentally reshaping the American economy and its society.

The architect of the plan is David W. Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College. More than a decade ago, he helped inspire a "green building" trend when he dreamed up the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, which remains one of the greenest college buildings in the country.

Now he wants to expand that vision to Oberlin and its surrounding area. The Oberlin Project, as it's called, joins town and gown to create a resilient community for a post-fossil-fuel era. When asked to describe the project, Mr. Orr conjures a picture of life in Oberlin—a city of 8,000 residents and students, 40 miles outside of Cleveland—many years into the future: The town and the college would be powered by renewable energy, with a smattering of new and renovated green buildings at the town's core—the first among them paid for by the college. A "greenbelt" of farms would pump food, wood, and fiber into the city, while a steady stream of money from the college and small businesses, like restaurants and furniture manufacturers, would flow back out to the farms. The college, the local community college, the local vocational school, and the city's elementary and secondary schools would rejigger their programs to prepare students to live in the future: a world short on oil, wracked by unstable weather, relying increasingly on sustainable design, regional industries, and local know-how. The town itself would be a laboratory for a new way of life.

"What colleges and universities can do, it seems to me, is serve as genuine anchor institutions," Mr. Orr says. "Intellectual leadership is going to be really important for moving forward in an era that is going to be radically different."

No doubt he faces significant hurdles. The project may evolve over decades, and at a time when money is tight and philanthropy is a tough game, an early estimate pegs the project's cost at about $140-million—with $55-million just to complete the first phase. Some local residents and officials have questioned whether academic ideals would sit well with average Ohioans. And it's fair to wonder whether the plan can maintain its momentum, particularly without Mr. Orr, who at 67 may not see the project to its end. He is the visionary, fund raiser, and charismatic leader—a man who, through reputation and gumption, has cobbled together an alliance of local politicians, bureaucrats, college administrators, and professors who support his goals.

He has also drawn interest from unlikely places: Experts from the military and in national security see the Oberlin Project as a compelling plan to focus on vulnerabilities in the nation's food, energy, and socioeconomic systems. They and others, including leaders of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington research group, see it as a model that communities across the country could follow­.

One of Mr. Orr's most vocal advocates is Col. Mark (Puck) Mykleby of the U.S. Marines, who just retired as special strategic assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Over the summer, Colonel Mykleby received national attention for a paper he wrote with another military strategist, Capt. Wayne Porter of the Navy, which argued that America's future lay not with its robust military force but with strategies for sustainable energy and agriculture, fair social policies, and a strong educational system.

Earlier this year, Colonel Mykleby and Mr. Orr were in Washington, meeting with agencies, think tanks, and foundations, and the professor and the wiry Marine made an unusual couple. But as they sat together in the bar of a stylish hotel on F Street, it made sense—especially as Colonel Mykleby started talking about the power of campus communities and his doubts that solutions would flow out of the nation's capital.

"The structures here, the organizations here, are all about trying to control the uncontrollable and about placating Americans," Mr. Mykleby said, his voice rising with frustration. "We need to have an adult conversation with Americans about the problem: We have a lot of work to do, and we better stare it straight in the eye and frickin' get it on."

Big Thinking, Small Town

Oberlin is a typical rural, Midwest college town, with a bustling coffee shop, a hip bar, and a handful of retail stores and restaurants. Parts of it seem to belong to a more prosperous, long-ago era, even though more than half of the children here get free or reduced-price lunch at school, and more than a quarter of the people live at or below the poverty line. But the prominence and largess of Oberlin College, which has helped shore up local entities like the fire department, have kept this town from spiraling downward.

In 2007, Mr. Orr was planning to leave Oberlin College, with some bitterness. After the Lewis Center was complete, he felt the college had squandered opportunities to build green and retain a leadership position in sustainability. Marvin Krislov, a former general counsel at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, became president that year, and he asked Mr. Orr what might keep him on campus. In time, they discussed whether Mr. Orr would want to oversee the green redevelopment of a 13-acre block at Main and College Streets, the city's central crossroads, where the dumpy Oberlin Inn still stands.

Mr. Orr thought that a simple redevelopment project wouldn't get donors and foundations to open their purses. The college, and the town, needed something bigger—something, like the Lewis Center, with national significance.

What he came back with—and what Oberlin's city government and the college's administrators and Board of Trustees eventually supported—was the Oberlin Project. The "green arts district" at Main and College would catalyze a green redevelopment of the city and surrounding area as a whole. The outdated Oberlin Inn would be replaced by a new hotel, bars and restaurants, a conference center, student residences, facilities for the college's arts programs, and a sustainable-design center. Those facilities would employ local craftsmen and use local products in their construction, kick-starting a local wood-products industry. The college dining services and restaurants would get their food from a 20,000-acre greenbelt in the region—Mr. Orr is working with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to identify a patchwork of Ohio farms that might be willing to give up some commodity crops to grow more vegetables for the city. Students from the local vocational school, which has a top-notch culinary program, would work in the conference center and restaurants. All the sewage would run through a Living Machine—a system that uses plants and microbes to clean wastewater.

The project unfurls from there, with details changing as Mr. Orr makes new deals and dreams up bigger plans. Most recently, he said that the Great Lakes Brewing Company, in Cleveland, had stepped forward with an interest in setting up a brewpub in the green arts district. Mr. Orr scrapped his plans for setting up a Living Machine on the block. Instead, he said, why not build a sewage digester at the town's wastewater-treatment plant to produce methane for electricity?

"Every time I have a wild idea, I go down to City Hall and talk to [the city manager] Eric Norenberg and find Marvin Krislov and figure out how we can do it," Mr. Orr says.

His challenge always lies in strategizing ways to sell the project, so he works it from different angles: If he is talking to fellow academics, he plays up the new facilities and the educational opportunities. If he is talking to an Oberlin business owner, he discusses the buzz and drawing visitors to the city.

Observers say one of the project's main risks is that it could be perceived as an effete, academic endeavor. Andy McDowell, a field director with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy who is helping Mr. Orr establish the greenbelt, doesn't mention climate neutrality or use the term "greenbelt" when talking to conservative farmers outside Oberlin. They are already skeptical of the intellectuals' ideas in town.

"It has to focus on economic stability, growing our local economies, and food security," he says. "Those are the kinds of things that are going to resonate once it gets beyond this bubble."

Even in town, the ideas could face some resistance. Tony Mealy, who has sat on the city council in the past and is running for a seat again this fall, believes that many residents don't yet know very much about the Oberlin Project. He generally approves of it, but he also complains about the way that Oberlin students and some of Mr. Orr's colleagues impose their ideas about sustainability on the town. Some of them come down to city hall, "and they are lecturing to us," he says.

Kenneth Sloane, president of the city council, who counts himself as a friend of Mr. Orr's, says that Oberlin suffers from town-gown tensions as much as anywhere, but people are generally positive about Mr. Orr's ideas. "People here are embracing the project because they hope it will be an economic generator," he says. "If doom and gloom hit the international economy, if we have developed a local network of industry and farming that is sustainable, we could be self-sufficient."

Neighborly Networking

Everyone with an interest in the environmental movement knows who David Orr is. His writing, in many books that are classics in his field, is lucid and passionate. The descendant of a long line of Christian preachers (his paternal grandfather offered a prayer at the baptism of the seminal environmentalist Rachel Carson), he can also command a lectern with equal parts humor and homily. Before coming to Oberlin in 1990, he founded an environmental institute in the hills of Arkansas, where prominent sustainability thinkers like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Amory Lovins congregated. Even a young Bill Clinton was an occasional guest.

In Oberlin, however, he comes off as just another townie. At the Feve, Oberlin's watering hole, locals frequently stop at his table to endure his ribbing and give some back—and Mr. Orr usually takes the opportunity to recruit talent for his project. One night, a fellow who operates a sawmill stopped by, and Mr. Orr started arranging a time to cut up trees on the edge of town that had been killed by an ash-borer infestation. Mr. Orr was dreaming of furniture made from local wood in the arts district.

Oberlin is so small that Mr. Orr has been able to cajole college administrators and local officials—sometimes in their driveways—until he persuades them to go his way.

So far the professor has raised $9-million toward his lofty goal. He predicts that most of the money will come from private investment, philanthropy, tax credits, and bonds.

As of now, Oberlin College has kicked in the most: The college's Allen Art Museum, which sits in the arts-district block, just went through an $11.2-million renovation. Oberlin also put up $500,000 to guarantee a loan for three former students who led a brownfield redevelopment—new green condos and retail space on the site of an old car dealership—in the heart of town. (Mr. Orr, who lobbied for the project at the college and in city hall, considers it vital to the success of the Oberlin Project.) The college also recently purchased and started renovating the town's sole movie house, a historic 1913 theater next to the brownfield redevelopment, a project that will cost $9-million.

Mr. Krislov, Oberlin's president, sees a return on the investment by energizing the city, which will make it more attractive to prospective students. "It shows that an aging town in the Rust Belt can in essence reinvent itself, drawing on its strengths in education and the arts, with a commitment to sustainability," Mr. Krislov says. To make things even more interesting, "we are not doing this in a new city, a new area, or a growth area, but in an area that is experiencing decline."

An 'Insurance Policy'

When the Oberlin Project was just getting started, Mr. Orr invited city-council members to sit down with Colonel Mykleby at the Feve for a kind of scared-straight session. Decked out in his military ribbons, the military strategist talked about the country's vulnerabilities to so-called black-swan events, unanticipated threats from outside and in.

In some ways the Oberlin Project resembles the Transition Towns of England—a new movement to relocalize food production, goods, and services (and even create local currencies) in response to worries about "peak oil"—the inevitable decline in oil supplies—and the breakdowns in social, economic, and other systems that peak oil will entail. Richard Heinberg, a journalist who has written several sobering books about peak oil, depleting resources, and, most recently, the flaccid economy, sees the Oberlin Project as "the most important thing we could be doing right now."

"David has painted the project in glowing, positive terms—as something inviting, as something preferable to what we have now," he says. "But from my perspective, it's an insurance policy against the economic contraction that we are likely to see in future years." 

 Patrick C. Doherty, a national-security expert at the New America Foundation, doesn't consider himself a "doomer," a label applied to Mr. Heinberg and some of his colleagues. But he does think the nation needs a new way of organizing itself—one in which colleges would have a vital role. He is working with Mr. Orr and Colonel Mykleby on a "national sustainable communities coalition" that will attempt to replicate the Oberlin Project in other parts of the country—possibly around military bases that are striving for sustainability.

In the 20th century, says Mr. Doherty, the United States coordinated its political and economic power to meet great global challenges, in what was called "grand strategy." We did it in World War II in orienting the nation's industrial base to ramp up and outperform the Axis powers. And we did it again in economically and politically outperforming and outlasting the Soviets in the cold war.

Mr. Doherty and his colleagues believe that the nation needs grand strategy once again to meet a new global challenge. "We think that the core global challenge is global unsustainability," he says—a convergence of major problems, including a persistent middle-class recession, ecological systems in decline, a vast population of the world's poorest people cut out of the global economy, and a core infrastructure susceptible to shock and disruption.

Part of the nation's grand strategy in the cold war was to build suburbia, to satisfy a major housing demand and stoke the economic engine. But those suburban communities are now both unsustainable and undesirable, Mr. Doherty says. Research shows that the majority of both retiring baby boomers and up-and-coming millennials want to live in walkable, affordable communities, rich with amenities and connected to mass transit.

In short, it's called "smart growth"—and it's the way many college towns are already designed and oriented. In fact, Mr. Doherty points out, college towns (including, even recently, Oberlin) have been the sites of new retirement communities, because that older generation wants to live close to institutions of higher education and the cultures they foster.

Top-down policy can drive this new grand strategy, he says, but given the political climate and the doubts people have about the effectiveness of government, it may have to start with small efforts like the Oberlin Project. Either way, he says, higher-education institutions would be "essential" to pulling it off.

Community as Teacher

The Rust Belt, Mr. Orr believes, is an ideal laboratory for this experiment. It has an abundance of resources that will be even more valuable in the future, including water and prime farmland. "It's not going to have to get a whole lot hotter in Texas before we see Texans coming up here," Mr. Orr says.

But if American communities will get a reboot, Mr. Orr insists, higher education is ready for one, too. Recently, he has been rereading The Reckoning, David Halberstam's book about the problems of an entrenched American auto industry amid the rise of innovative Japanese automakers. Traditional colleges are like the Ford Motor Company in 1972, on the edge of a cliff, he says.

"We can't assume that we have a future where a student has to come up with $125,000 for a college degree," Mr. Orr says. "Our main product line has to be reconsidered. Ford Motors and GM didn't get it. They had to be rescued. There won't be support to rescue higher education. We have to reinvent it."

That might mean tapping into student energy and community resources. In many ways, the groundwork for the Oberlin Project was laid by Mr. Orr's students who stuck around in Oberlin, seeking to use the town as a laboratory for a real-world education. Joshua Rosen, Naomi Sabel, and Ben Ezinga, who graduated in the early 2000s, have spent the past 10 years on the brownfield-redevelopment project that Mr. Orr considers a keystone in the city's revitalization. Joseph Waltzer, who graduated in 1998, established two restaurants in town that use local fare; now he wants to buy a shuttered grocery store and establish a market that sells local food—a development that could be important in establishing the greenbelt.

The greenbelt itself is in part the work of Brad Masi, a 1993 graduate who has worked on various local-food projects in the region, including founding a center for sustainable agriculture. Gabe Pollack, a recent graduate from the music program, is busing tables at Mr. Waltzer's restaurant and working for a local music-booking agency until he finds a way to establish a jazz club somewhere in the arts district.

"I would hope that the Oberlin Project leads to a reconsideration of a whole lot of stuff that we now assume to be educational," Mr. Orr says.

And now he's dreaming again. Why not get a holistic education in Oberlin, with people learning from teachers at the vocational school, the tradesmen with businesses here, the avid gardener, or the retired seamstress who lives down the street? "Imagine a curriculum here, where you take this whole city of 8,000 people and you do what the free universities were doing 30 years ago—learning from people here who know how to blacksmith, or make quilts, or can tomatoes. Imagine taking the whole population and making that the schoolhouse."