City News

University students bring solutions for Salem climate, infrastructure, community projects

When Sulwyn De Crozuc heard that the University of Oregon’s Sustainable City Year Program would be based in Salem this year, she was ecstatic. 

De Crozuc, a UO senior majoring in planning, public policy and management, grew up walking and biking in Salem. Both of her siblings were hit by cars in city crosswalks, luckily sustaining minimal injuries.

“I’ve had multiple near misses trying to get around town, just because of the nature of the way Salem is designed,” she said.

De Crozuc got a chance to help her hometown improve through the program, which allows college students to apply their studies of architecture, planning, public administration, journalism and geography to real city projects. Their work in Salem this year focused on topics from boardwalks for beavers to improving the way Salem collects bills. It’s intended to help the city further projects and apply for grants.

This year, around 20 classes participated in a partnership boosted by a $150,000 grant from the federal Department of Education, secured by Senators Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley and former Congressman Peter DeFazio. The city matched the grant with $150,000. One student from each class was paid to put together the final report to present to the city.

The city first participated in 2011, and students brought their ideas to city planning at Willow Lake, streetlight maintenance and plans for redeveloping Northeast Front Street downtown. 

De Crozuc had already taken Professor Marc Schlossberg’s course on bicycle transportation last year, when the program partnered with the city of Sisters.

But Salem was home. She said she immediately ran to Schlossberg’s office upon hearing the announcement.

“I was like, ‘Marc. I am going to be in your class spring term. I don’t care that I’ve already taken it. I don’t care that I passed it, I’m going to take the class,’” she said. Determined, she went to an academic advisor to argue her case to take the same class two years in a row.

“There was no way in hell I was not taking this class,” she said.

Substantive recommendations

This year’s cohort brought substantive recommendations, especially to further reduce Salem’s climate impact, said Courtney Knox Busch, the city’s strategic initiatives manager who led the collaboration with the university.

“There were 181-some strategies in the climate action plan, and so that was one thing that we served up to the Sustainable Cities Year Program as an opportunity to really move further than we could on our own,” she said. “And they just picked it up and ran with it.”

Among the student projects this year was a campaign to limit car idling, especially in parent pickup lines at elementary schools. They came up with a sticker campaign using student art to educate people about the environmental impact, and Knox Busch said that they’re already starting the conversation with school employees first, as recommended by the students.

Other students studied ways to incorporate solar power in the upcoming developments at Geer Park, and how to engage neighborhoods in the plans.

One architecture and engineering course was tasked with creating a shelter for Highland Park. By the end of the 10-week term, they’d come up with a ready-build wooden structure.

“Working architects side-by-side with engineers, that is such a critical skill set to have that language and understand what you’re designing,” she said. “I think that’s been a transformative experience for the students, as well.”

University students test out connecting pieces for a Salem park shelter, modeled in small-scale the background (Courtesy/ Courtney Knox Busch)

As part of the program, Portland State University engineering students helped design a “beaver boardwalk” to allow Minto-Brown Island Park’s growing beaver population to thrive while coexisting with park users. They studied different options like raised and floating pathways. Knox Busch said that their work to examine feasibility will make it easier to apply for federal money to build the boardwalk.

“They tested it, and threw out the things that don’t work, so that we’re closer to being able to get some grant funding to solve that problem,” she said.

Student work also came up several times during the most recent meeting of Salem’s Revenue Task Force. The volunteer group is looking into new ways to bring money in and address the budget shortfall. As part of that work, the city is planning to update its software that collects a monthly fee on utility bills.

Students in a public budgeting class looked at ways to make the fee more equitable for commercial and residential customers, coming up with a 168-page report that rated equity, efficiency, productivity, neutrality, certainty and convenience for each option.

“It’s great that they explored it in the detail that they did, because it’s showing us pretty quickly which kind of tweaks won’t really work,” Knox Busch said. “They’ve tested things really thoroughly down to what the fee structure could be for each of those different machinations on the commercial side or on the residential side.”

They also brought perspectives on ways to inspire more young people to volunteer for city services.

Knox Busch said that the students helped push the boundaries and revitalize the city’s approach to projects. 

“In times where the city is fiscally constrained, we often see training as one of the first casualties. And this is actually bringing new and interesting ideas and new ways of thinking to our community and to our employees,” she said.

In return, the students got to do real, tangible work.

She recalled one in a course about senior services in Salem who was “sort of phoning it in,” at the beginning, and seemed uninterested. By the final presentation, she saw a change in him. Mid-presentation, he remarked, “Wow. This is real.”

She said he thanked her afterward for coming to listen to their ideas, and that he’d never had a class like it before.

“That’s, really, I think what makes this model of applied learning so cool for the students, for the community, for the staff,” she said. “Harnessing it has been one of my favorite all time things I’ve done.”

Biking in Salem

De Crozuc’s college studies have focused on transportation alternatives to cars. Last summer,  she toured European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen to study their street design and experience what a bike-centric city feels like. She said she misses it every day.

At the start of the term, De Crozuc said Salem provided a few proposals for roads to improve, like Front Street. She expanded on that list, offering her professor a two-page expansion of suggestions from her personal experience and observations.

One was Southeast Commercial Street. “My brother got hit on his electric bike going to and from work here twice, he now drives,” she wrote, adding a sad face emoji. She also pointed to Mission Street, Silverton Road, Lancaster Drive and more. She highlighted major issues of drivers running red lights, and that low-income neighborhoods have worse infrastructure.

“(Professor Schlossberg) took that list, and those are the projects that my class did which is so rewarding and so absolutely amazing that that happened. Like I’m kind of in disbelief that this class was real, that this year was real,” De Crozuc said. 

Her class split into groups of three or four people based on their interests to tackle projects including safe routes to school, adding multi-use paths and marketing campaigns to promote biking.

The student work will serve as a base for the ongoing development of the city’s transportation master plan, said Knox Busch.

De Crozuc gave a speech at the end-of-year celebration for the collaboration, attended by her Salem family and city leaders. She said it was especially exciting to speak in front of Mayor Chris Hoy, and it felt like the city was really listening to the students.

She was most excited to show her family that people care about Salem.

“Being able to show them all these projects, all of the passion for the things that I’ve been working on, and the other ideas that my peers have. Being able to look at my family like: ‘Look, it’s not just me. Other people are trying to improve the place we live in,’” she said.

Read more about the classes and see the students’ final projects here.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.