Greening the Rust Belt

Background Story

In August 2010, R2G Utica, after six months of meeting with Cornell Rust to Green faculty research partners, adopted 4 key priorities into the City of Utica's CDBG Consolidated Plan. These include:

Rust to Green Utica Priorities

  • Green Economy
  • Green Buildings and Infrastructure
  • Green Community Development and Education
  • Green Policies
Together these arenas and priorities are informing the projects and action steps being undertaken by R2G Utica community partners in collaboration with Cornell's R2G NY academic partners.

R2G NY's efforts in Utica are aiming to connect with the many community grass roots and non-profit agencies and organizations that comprise an active segment of the population and an area in which there is evidence of tremendous social capital. At the other end of the spectrum, R2G NY is connecting to city and county government to address larger scale issues and realities, which are playing a major role in how the city and region will shape their future. Ecological and green infrastructure solutions, for example, may enable the city of Utica to address their combined sewer/stormwater challenges while enhancing the urban environment. At larger scales, a regional food policy will increase resiliency and identify potential avenues for addressing food security, stimulating innovation and spurring economic development.

In addition to helping to revise the city's CDBG 3- year Consolidated Plan to reflect Rust to Green priorities early triumphs under Mayor David Roefaro's City of Utica administration, included the appointing of a Rust to Green liaison (Robert Sullivan) in City Hall, setting aside of funds for grant writing services and the promise of a dedicated city-owned building, as the future home of R2G Utica. The support shown by the Roefaro administration helped to create significant impetus for R2G Utica in its first year. Unfortunately, political realities also led to a later loss of momentum. By early 2011, R2G Utica lost its City liaison and Mayor Roefaro began planning his departure while the promised R2G Headquarters was removed from consideration as a useable site, also due to leadership and priority changes.

In spite of experiencing a degree of unpredictability in City government, R2G Utica has been able to develop and strengthen relationships with the City Planning, Parks/ DPW and Engineering Departments. When R2G NY began working in Utica, a key concern appeared to be the lack of coordination in City Hall between different departments concerned with the built environment. Rust to Green Utica has been able to activate greater dialogue in City Hall related to sustainable planning and design. The key example of this was Rust to Green's ability to retrofit a city owned and city-designed parking lot adjacent to City Hall to include green practices. This brand new parking lot was under construction when R2G got involved and as a result, now includes a bio-retention area and the city's first demonstration site of a green parking lot. This project was instrumental in activating a dialogue related to addressing city hall's need to educate and empower its engineering, planning, and design units to understand the most up-to date green design practices. Rust to Green Civic Research Fellows were involved in both designing and installing the bio-retention area working with the City Parks Department.

R2G NY and R2G Utica have gone on to work with the City on other Green infrastructure Projects and planning for revitalization of Chancellor Park, Bleecker Street and Genesee Street. Such projects aim to help the City address their combined sewer/stormwater challenges while enhancing the urban environment and increasing the quality, usability and accessibility of public space and parks for their users.

While working with the City Planning Department on the CDBG Consolidated Plan, Utica's food security rose to the top of R2G Utica's agenda as community stakeholders expressed their desire to pursue pathways for greater food security. In a city with such low income levels where childhood poverty hovers around 47% (2006-2008), many residents qualify for social services programs, and just last year, nearly 70% of K-12 students in the Utica City School district qualified for free lunches- 80% for reduced rate lunches. These levels are higher than the state average of 63%, and are almost triple that of Oneida County.

Food became the subject and the catalyst of widening R2G Utica partnerships to include Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County (CCE). Food is an issue that dramatically underscores the spatial, economic and social overlay and exchange of rural and urban areas. A group of 25 partnering agencies, with Cornell Landscape Architecture (R2G NYS), CCE, the City of Utica and the Resource Center for Independent Living taking the lead, initiated the Utica/Oneida Food System Project six months into the Rust to Green Initiative and by October 2010 were working together to obtain a USDA grant subsequently awarded in Spring 2011. This grant is currently supporting a two-year action research project surveying and mapping the geography of Utica and Oneida County's food system and hunger. Now being called the Mohawk Valley Food Action Network, this group is working toward the final goal of launching a regional Food Policy and Food Policy Council by 2013.

The R2G Utica College Consortium is yet another outcome of R2G Utica and officially kicked off in December 2010 after P. Horrigan (Cornell) and C. Willemson (Hamilton) spent Fall 2010 meeting representative faculty, staff and leadership from different area campuses. This particular action grew from discussions among the R2G Core related to a perceived and real lack of interaction between area colleges and the city of Utica. Utica's Congressional District has the highest percentages of universities in NY State. The action step of convening a College Consortium was taken and a group of representatives from 11 area colleges spent the spring and summer of 2011 meeting as a "Learning Group." Over that time they generated a mission statement and worked together to map out the content and process for a Rust to Green Utica CC Website which Hamilton College agreed to host and which was implemented in the summer 2011 with the support of Hamilton College's Levitt Center and an R2G intern. Since 2011, Hamilton College's Levitt Center has also been encouraging and supporting community engaged research project grants to faculty working on Rust to Green related projects in Utica.

In summer 2011, 30 students from 5 colleges were Rust to Green Utica interns working on a series of projects including the MVFAN Food Project, an Ecological Citizenship Curriculum Project, green Infrastructure Mapping, Green Streets and downtown revitalization and micro-finance. In addition, the summer was spent activating a downtown storefront as an R2G Utica summer meeting/workspace at the Harza Building, greening Franklin Square and producing and delivering R2G Utica education programs related to sustainability at Utica Monday Nites.

In 2012, the Rust to Green Capstone Studio (R2G NY), with R2G Utica and Utica Neighborhood Housing Services along with the Cornhill Neighborhood Association teamed up to undertake the design of Kemble Park on the site of the former Kemble School in Utica's Cornhill. A participatory community design process and resulting park design and accompanying report offers a vital step in the process of creating Kemble Park. Now a tangible vision for the park which meets the needs of the surrounding neighborhood, is being used to secure funding and undertake implementation.

The design of a school garden and larger I have a DREAMscape, at Martin Luther King School is another recent collaboration involving R2G Utica, R2G NY and a variety of community partners. The garden and larger Dreamscape provide activities and settings for teaching and learning related to science, math, art, culture and literacy. They also encourage physical activity, discovery, sociability and community citizenship. Summer 2012 Rust to Green Civic Fellows acted as the key designers working with the community on this project.

Finally, the proposal to create Utica's One World Garden, in this United Nations designated refugee resettlement city, focuses on resilience and transformation. It is motivated by the desire to create a restorative setting for the city's newly arriving refugees as well as the broader, tremendously diverse multi-cultural community into which they are settling. Additionally, this garden provides the impetus for the design of a larger research project that will use qualitative and quantitative research methods, across a 5-year time frame, to examine the role of nature in the resettlement experience of refugees. The One World Garden is a project being undertaken with a group of community partners under the leadership of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and in concert with the Open Spaces Sacred Spaces Program of the TKF Foundation. One World Garden is directly attributable to the R2G Utica, R2G NY and partnerships formed through the Rust to Green Utica College Consortium.

Those involved with R2G Utica have expressed an increased sense of empowerment and capacity as a result of the inclusive, participatory and collaborative action research approach being guided by R2G NY. The group indicates that this approach, which aims to promote creative dialogue and action, is markedly different from other efforts they have been involved in. The focus on shifting the narrative, from rust to green, has met with a particularly positive response by those involved who perceive that the city, its press and much of its leadership focuses too much on the negatives as opposed to the city's positives or those attributes and assets on its future must rely.

R2G Utica's Vision

"Growing our city into a resilient, vibrant, sustainable community for the 21st century"

R2G Utica's Mission

Cultivate an open and dynamic network
Identify and nurture our assets
Craft and share adaptable principles, tools and practices to guide the way
Take action to accomplish our vision of a resilient, sustainable and vibrant 21st Century Utica

Message to Utica's Future

When Utica residents were asked to comment on how they would want to affect Utica's future, they came up with a range of answers that are illustrated in word size. Click on the image above to see the full graphic.