Out of Their Comfort Zone: Students Merge Ecology and Design in Baltimore
A Yale-led initiative recently allowed students to work closely with Baltimore leaders to integrate ecological experiments into local design projects — and move the city closer to environmental sustainability.
By Kevin Dennehy
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Earth Stewardship Initiative fellows meet with Baltimore officials over a map of the city.
First-year M.E.M. student Amber Collett barely had a chance to unpack her bags after arriving in New Haven this summer before she had to catch a train to Baltimore.
Collett, who hadn’t even completed her F&ES orientation, was one of 18 student fellows from across the country who participated in the Earth Stewardship Initiative (ESI), a Yale-led urban ecology project that coincided with the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in August.
Tiffany Carey (left), a University of Michigan alum and ESI fellow who was hired by the Parks and People Foundation, and Rebecca Evans, an ESI fellow from Colorado State University.
Working with city officials, local conservation groups and community leaders, the fellows made the case for integrating ecological experiments into local design projects in order to better monitor the environmental health of urban systems — and move the city closer to environmental sustainability. But they didn’t have much time to do it.
In just six days, Collett — who had never been to Baltimore — immersed herself in local efforts to restore inner-block parks in the city’s Harlem Park neighborhood, met with neighborhood residents and community leaders to better understand their visions for the area, and helped craft new solutions that integrated ecology and design.
“We had a lot to do on a very short timeline,” said Collett. “But that also meant we were constantly forced to change and re-evaluate our assumptions, processes, and ultimate recommendations.”
It was the second time the Earth Stewardship Initiative had embedded itself into the ESA’s annual meeting. Created by Alexander Felson, a professor at F&ES and the Yale School of Architecture, the ESI aims to integrate ecology and design in real community projects and teach students to work on community-based planning under real-world pressure.
And because it requires them to work with a broad range of constituencies, students come away with a better understanding of the complex dynamics that inevitably accompany local projects, Felson said.
“We choreographed the events and fellows’ participation to assure that they contributed to projects that were already going forward,” Felson said. “That way we were able to engage with the community and learn their perspectives while managing their expectations and not having to build new momentum.
“And because the work was supported by the Ecological Society of America, the students could explore more broadly and push beyond their comfort zones.”
Separated into three groups, the fellows were asked to design creative solutions to a trio of NSF-funded projects. Working with stakeholders — including the Baltimore-based group Parks & People, Biohabitats, Mahan Rykiel Associates, and other designers and ecologists — they visited the community project sites, consulted with local experts and community members, debated potential solutions, and made their own recommendations.
<div style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: Calibri, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; "> Vacant and occupied homes in Harlem Park.</div>
In Harlem Park, the ESI group advised utilizing vacant lots to connect inner-block parks with Baltimore’s thriving street culture, giving the parks names that have meaning for local residents, and integrating marble house stoops — a critical part of local culture and activity — into park bench designs to connect people, and the community’s history, with the parks.
In a waterfront area known as Upper Middle Branch, the fellows devised a network of “outfall labs” — where visitors could monitor the ecological conditions of the harbor, or contribute their own citizen science — in addition to a series of health stations for runners or hikers to monitor their own fitness.
“So these outfall labs could also be centers for fitness, where people could observe not only the health of the harbor but, perhaps through an interactive phone application, monitor their own health,” said Rupal Patel ’16 M.E.M., one of the fellows.
Ultimately the fellows were asked to pitch their proposals directly to community leaders. In some cases the initial responses were blunt, even jarring. “It was kind of stressful, but I think that is what Alex wanted,” Patel said. “He wanted us to be thrown into it and figure it out. Because, honestly, that’s what it’s like in the real world.”
In the end, the fellows said, the community groups appreciated the recommendations. In fact, some of these ideas continue to be developed as components of the real-world projects.
Amber Collett, who is now working as a teaching fellow for the course, also continues to work with Harlem Park leaders to hone her group’s project. Working on the ground in Baltimore, she said, offered a valuable forum to apply theories discussed in the classroom to the community design space.
“It was a big decision for me to leave my job and come back to school, and I only have two years — I want to make the most of it,” she said. “ESI seemed like an incredible opportunity to connect the work I was doing before school with what I’m learning at Yale, and, ultimately, to what I hope to do afterwards.”
ESI fellows pose with Baltimore city officials and members of the group Parks & People. Members of the Yale community include F&ES Prof. Alexander Felson (foreground); Amber Collett ’17 M.E.M. (front row, second from right); Grace Castillo ’18 Yale College and project coordinator (back row, far left); Rupal Patel ’16 M.E.M. (back row, seventh from left); James Stephenson ’15 M.E.M. (back row, tenth from right); Caroline Dumont ’98 M.D. (back row, fifth from right); and Jonathan Galka ’18 Yale College (back row, far right).