Skip to main content

Blugolds explore equality in sustainability

| Shari Lau

We all know how important it is to reduce our carbon footprint on the Earth by implementing sustainability initiatives both individually and communitywide. But a look into how accessible those initiatives are for all citizens may be just as important.

Dr. David Soll's course on sustainable cities takes such a look at sustainability practices in Portland, Oregon — a city well-known for being a leader in green initiatives by emphasizing a local economy, energy-efficient transportation and renewable energies.

"It's important for students to understand that everyone is affected by the decisions cities are making in regards to sustainability," said Soll, assistant professor in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at UW-Eau Claire. "People have different levels of interest in environmental issues. Those who don't have access to personal transportation and are at the mercy of public transportation are just as affected as those who choose to bike to work or own garden plots. This course brings together environmental and social factors and allows students to think about sustainability in a more expansive way."

Soll and his colleague Dr. Jim Boulter, associate professor and director of the Watershed Institute, led 16 undergraduate students on a nine-day trip to Portland to gain an understanding of the human justice dimension of environmental sustainability.

The group toured the city on bicycles, kayaked on the river, visited several sites of green initiatives and met with people involved in Portland's sustainability efforts.

Ben Smethurst, a liberal studies major focusing on communication and social systems, jumped at the chance to take part in Soll's course and accompanying immersion trip. The senior from Prairie du Chien said he enjoyed learning about the history and future of Portland and is thankful for the experience. 

Read more about the trip in a Q&A with Smethurst.

Can you describe what you experienced while on the immersion trip to Portland?
I feel like the experience crossed over so many disciplines. I experienced a completely different culture by leaving the Midwest and was able to study what makes that type of city tick. There were different types of people, standards, food and every other aspect of everyday living that really made going on the trip an absolute treat.  

What did you learn while you were there?
I learned that though there are many things that we can carry back to Eau Claire like sustainability practices, we really need to have a good group of people supporting and running those practices as well. The graduate students who showed us the city really made this evident during our stay.

Were you surprised by anything you saw or experienced?
I was very surprised by the amount of gentrification that we saw while we stayed in Portland. We saw incredibly luxurious parts of the city that were blocks away from parts that might be avoided by the people who own the ritzy areas. I found that to be the most surprising aspect.

What will you do with the knowledge you have gained from the trip?
I will most likely tell all my friends to go on a university-sponsored trip because it is cost-effective to do as a student and you learn a lot more than you might going on your own. I will also apply many of my experiences to courses that I will take in the future.

How did the blend of classroom learning and immersion experience benefit your education in this area?
I feel that I was better able to apply my knowledge rather than simply sitting through a lecture and taking a test. I think that if we had more classes that allowed our students to apply their knowledge and gain knowledge firsthand, we would see more confident students who are also more passionate about their projects and careers. I felt that I learned a lot by working through examples and applying them.

For more information about the course on sustainable cities or the immersion trip to Portland, contact Dr. David Soll at or 715-836-5909.  

Photo cutline:
Students kayak in Portland, Oregon, as part of Dr. David Soll's course on sustainable cities.