Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Middlebury College: A Model For Rural Development?

BOULDER, Colorado -- Like every small rural community, Starksboro, Vermont is facing changes. No longer a remote locale, the sleepy farming community is being drawn into the orbit of the nearby city of Burlington, and there is increasing pressure to develop and build on agricultural land.

To help it cope with these challenges, the town has enlisted the help of nearby Middlebury College, my alma mater. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Middlebury has partnered with the Orton Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust to launch a project that will enlist undergraduates from an environmental studies course called "Portrait of a Vermont Town" to interview local people in Starksboro about how they they view their town's past, present and future.

The goal here is "enriching the context in which towns think about their planning process," according to Prof. John Elder, the course instructor. “The key is to project beyond immediate controversies over applications for subdivisions and to say, ‘Let’s envision the future that we would love to have,’ ” said Elder, “at which point there is considerable agreement.” The final product will be library transcripts that can then be employed by town planners as a valuable repository of public input.

When I attended Middlebury, I was constantly encouraged in my classes and extracurricular activities to engage with the local community, and to use this engagement as both an opportunity for learning and to make meaningful impacts. As a geography major, we were constantly doing projects that revolved around local issues. The department has always played an important role in the development planning of both the college and the town, offering up expertise in Geographic Information Systems and remote sensing, as well as the more qualitative methods employed in this project. I personally conducted research on local flood mitigation and the Middlebury Police Department as an undergraduate; for my coursework in GIS and cartography, we did projects on issues such as preservation of historic buildings and finding suitable sites for industrial parks in Middlebury.

I would like to thank my professors at Middlebury, especially my advisor, Guntram Herb, for instilling this interest in the local community, and I hope I have carried on this commitment in my graduate school career and in my new surroundings. On the geography department website, you can see the local projects that students and faculty have been engaged in recently.

Watch Prof. Elder discuss the Starksboro project:

Thanks to Itchy, a fellow Middlebury alumnus, for the link.

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