Oberlin College


Global North




The Model

What is the institute’s sustainability approach?

The Oberlin Project at Oberlin College embeds circularity into all aspects of university functioning. In a joint-effort between city and institutional administration and private partners, the project aims to create a carbon-free and 'climate-positive' city and community by shifting the city towards renewable resources, and meeting 70% of the city and university's food consumption needs via local, sustainable agriculture. The overarching principle from the university's perspective is students as change agents, as the project relies on student participation via project-based learning, transdisciplinary research, and internships. A central goal is to foster a sense of 'place-making' for all students, via actively involving students in their immediate surroundings: students work in regional nature preserves, on the college farm which supplies the majority of food to the campus, in community-based learning initiatives or in water treatment and recycling facilities. In addition to goals related to climate, energy efficiency, the creation of green space, and building an educational alliance, one of the project's aims is dissemination and replication of the project in other locations across the United States.

transition process

Activities and Development Process

What is the institute’s overall culture of sustainability and their long-term vision for the future?

The Oberlin Project is a joint effort of the City of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and private and institutional partners. The Project commitments are focused on implementation and triggering social, economic and environmental transformations, to address environmental and economic problems that confront northeast Ohio.

How does the institute translate their sustainability vision into a sustainability agenda?

The project sees students as key suppliers of knowledge and sustainability initiatives to external stakeholders. Students are positioned as ‘doers’ or change agents by integrating them into the design and implementation of various initiatives through experiential learning. To address their climate commitment, Oberlin coordinated an Energy Planning Committee bringing together varied actors across the university and town.

What are the institute’s short-term practices and programmes which achieve their sustainability mission?

Students participate through project-based learning across a variety of courses, trans-academic research, and internships. Using GIS, local maps are developed to identify priority areas for sustainability action within the university campus and surrounding community.


Sustainability and Setting

What is the culture of sustainability at the country-level?

The US is the number one per capita consumer of fossil fuels and is lagging behind other comparable countries in increasing renewable energy investment and reducing fossil fuel use and carbon emissions. In recent years, a National Climate Task Force was established with the goals of reducing of greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by 2030, generating 100% CO2 free electricity by 2035, and delivering 40% of the benefits of clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.

In which regional context is the institution situated, and what is their policy or activities of integration within the broader community?

Oberlin College is located in the center of the ‘Rust belt’, where poverty rates of 24% exceed the national average. Economic resilience has diminished since the decline of the manufacturing sector in the 20th century, yet various regional efforts exist to innovate sustainable development planning in the region.

What is the institutional context of engaging with sustainability and experimenting with reorganisation or alternative governance approaches?

The unifying aim of the Oberlin project is transformation of the Rust Belt into the “Green belt”. Oberlin College’ mission has increasingly embraced campus-wide sustainability education, carbon neutrality and green architecture. They intend to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, and monitor water and energy use in real-time.

Process and Approach

Development Timespan

What was the time-line and process of development and implementation of the sustainability approach?

Oberlin College was founded in 1833 as a co-educational institute promoting Christian values and trade skills. In 2000, Oberlin opened the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, an ecologically designed zero-discharge building which laid the foundations for the Oberlin Project, which was officially launched in late 2010. Guided by a project office employing four full-time staff, it unites Oberlin College (students, various faculty, administrative staff, the Sustainability Office and the President), the City of Oberlin (the City Manager and various personnel) and the community (various organisations, NPOs, and local experts


Drivers and Challenges

What were the motivations for developing the approach?

The project’s goals cover the “full spectrum” of sustainability, targeting all aspects of the town including buildings, energy, lifestyles, economic and social systems, education, the natural environment, agriculture and policy.

What are some challenges that arose?

Uniting and achieving consensus between varied stakeholders required for success of the “Greenbelt” approach has been a key challenge in project implementation. Difficulties attracting investors for societal projects has also led to slower project progress.

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