Getting the Direction Right

Cheryl Goudie, Ph.D.
Ecological Research Center University of Memphis

Ecological Research Center, University of Memphis The Ecological Research Center was excited to hear about the Sustainable Shelby project. It confirmed that we were headed in the right direction regarding the new training that our graduate and undergraduate students would require to be successful in the new “green” economy. We recently began the Urban Ecology Initiative here at the University because we realized that traditional ecology programs were not sufficiently preparing students for the jobs they would occupy in the urban workforce. A traditional ecology background did not offer adequate interdisciplinary experiences to train them for jobs in private organizations, or city and county governments, where their responsibilities would require economic and equitable decisions regarding land use, environmental health and safety issues and public policy, and where skills in communication, diplomacy and even psychology (in addition to their ecological knowledge) would be imperatives. While the urban environment is the only one that is experiencing continued growth (about one-fourth of the human population will live in urban environments by 2050), it is the one we know the least about. We must have a trained workforce that is able to take established approaches to maintenance of biodiversity and conservation of natural resources, and apply them to the urban environment—a challenging situation because of conflicts between the ever expanding built environment that accompanies human activities (homes, stores, schools, etc. and transportation) and the plants and animals that are encroached upon and displaced by human activities—all of this, while promoting a high quality of life for all. How can this be accomplished? Sustainable Shelby is an impressive start. It takes great leadership to change the “business as usual” stranglehold in most civic organizations and governments: these are times when great leadership is needed. Mayor Wharton had heard of a change coming (the terms “sustainable” and “green” have been talked about around the world for the past quarter century and have gained momentum in this country during the last 5-10 years) and responded to it in a very thoughtful and planned manner. To take government employees off their regular jobs, to pair them with working citizens, to conduct surveys of hundreds of other citizens, to hold public commenting opportunities, and to come up with a consensus working document that will become the framework for Shelby County operations into the future demonstrates the high level of commitment that Mayor Wharton has toward sustainable and equitable development and natural resource stewardship. Bringing sustainability issues to the forefront of government policy will do much to improve the image of Shelby County, and it comes at a time when quality of life is the single most important factor that attracts and retains a highly skilled, college-educated workforce. The University of Memphis, as a major anchor institution in Shelby County and as a significant consumer of resources, also has a responsibility to lead, and in fact, is in the process of evaluating its own sustainability footprint. As a consequence, we anticipate development of more sustainable energy use and operational practices, establishment of more sustainability-focused educational and research efforts, and graduation of more ecologically- literate and sustainability-minded students who will become future civic leaders. The continued commitment of Mayor Wharton to implement the highest priority outcomes of Sustainable Shelby will help establish an environmental ethic in county government that hopefully will be translated to Shelby County citizens. We must all realize, however, that this is a trans-generational commitment—one that transcends all age groups, and if done correctly, will transcend all time. We anticipate that Sustainable Shelby will meet the expectations of its citizens to “create a great public realm for our community” and look forward to seeing it happen.