Sustainability Interview: Steve Rodie


Steve Rodie, FASLA – director of UNO’s Center for Urban Sustainability (unomaha.edu/center-for-urban-sustainability)

What role do you and your organization play in sustainability?

The Center was regent-approved two years ago, so the board of regents approved it as an entity at the Universities of Nebraska. 

Our major role at UNO is interaction and collaboration and engagement with the city and with the community. A big part of this is to build partnerships in research, teaching and outreach that either enhance sustainability for the community or create greater awareness of the benefits of sustainability. So it’s a combination of education, research and outreach.

What elements of negative human impact concern you most, generally and in your area of expertise?

Climate change. Einstein has a famous quote that we can’t solve problems at the same level of thinking we used when we created them…At some point it seems like we’re going to create something that we can’t come back from. 

We now have these Roundup Ready crops, so we have corn and soybeans out in these fields that are the only things growing because everything else is wiped out by the Roundup. There are reports I’ve read where we have 90 percent decreases of monarch butterflies in some parts of the U.S. because all the milkweed they need to live is wiped out now and typically wouldn’t have been prior to this chemical ability to just grow the corn and soybeans. At some point, it seems that we’re going to create something we can’t come back. Nuclear waste is another one; what do we do with this stuff if the half-life 20,000 years or whatever it is, in terms of putting it away somewhere for that long? That’s the kind of the umbrella thing: as great as technology is, we end up creating problem that we are potentially getting close to not being able to solve. We have this notion…the fracking now, Oklahoma has earthquakes they never had before because we’re injecting the waste stuff so far into the geology. People are saying of course we can’t poison the groundwater, at least we don’t think we can. And then what?

Anyway, specific to my area, it’s cuts to funding. We are in dire straits right now to be able to fund things like better urban design, active living, better subdivision design. Funding for trails continually gets cut out of transportation funding at the federal level. And we’re only going to get tighter, budget-wise in terms of government spending. So our ability to keep that kind of funding, which is a long-term investment for all of us and which is quality of life for all of us, is something that seems like it’s the frou-frou or fluff that should be taken out that we really don’t need, it’s kind of like do you have flowers on your table or not; there are some days that that’s the only thing that keeps you going. And there all kinds of studies that show that connection to nature and exercise—we have significant issues with obesity and health because of lack of activity, and yet we have actually have in the last 20 years designed subdivisions with no sidewalks and place for people to walk and no ability to connect with nature unless you get in the car and drive to it. That’s a hard push, again, because so much of this ends up being something that politicians and others feel is a luxury that kind of gets us away from what we really ought to be doing. It’s very shortsighted.

I did a TED talk at UNO several weeks ago for the first TEDxUNO and it was on sustainability. (https://youtu.be/hX_WWjEyVSc) I tried to define sustainability and I used the “seven generations principle” as part of it. The Iroquois codified it hundreds of years ago, Native Americans are really the ones that universally uphold it but it’s believed by a lot of other people, too. Basically, any decision we make that relates to resource issues or people issues, we should look seven generations ahead to see what kind of impact it’s going to have. Which is basically, plus or minus, 150 years. It seems we can’t get past an election cycle nowadays, in terms of up to four years. I think with sustainability, with environmental issues, we need to invest longer than we are. And seven generations may be crazy, but it’s our great great great great whatever grandkids. We all say we should save something for our grandkids, but at some point we draw the line.

What good news is out there regarding sustainability?

I think that younger generations are “getting” it…We have younger people who are coming up through the ranks of design firms and other entities that can make a difference. 

There are people in my generation who have been asked to change significant professional paradigms to embrace sustainability. For example, in storm water management, civil engineers in were trained their entire life to get rid of storm water as quickly as they could. Now in sustainable storm water management incorporates holding on to rain water and putting it into rain gardens and bioretention basins. So I’ve had design professionals tell me after a presentation I’ve made that they’re glad they’re retiring, because they’re being asked to do things that their career paradigm just does not allow them to shift. They’re saying it with a smile on their face, but it’s true. It’s not a criticism or judgment, because as we’re trained, we all have some very we strong things we believe in and we’re asking people to do things radically different. 

The other point I like to make is that every little bit helps. There’s a factoid I like to use, and it’s in the TED talk, where if you can save one inch of rain application on a 5,000-square-foot yard/lawn—so you basically turn your irrigation off if it rains—it’s 3,000 gallons of water, which is enough drinking water for 17 people for a year. 

We can’t all do everything, but if we can all do a little bit it can collectively make a difference.

What needs to be done first and by whom locally?

What we see at the university is setting good examples, and I think that includes UNO and other institutions…(UNO) recently completed and approved a sustainability master plan that comprehensively looks at setting goals for the next 10 years or so and then on up to 2050. Some of those goals are pretty rigorous and it’s everything from water to energy to campus culture. New sustainability minor bachelor of general studies trying to walk the walk OPPD alternative energy others in Omaha large corporations good examples big players huge grassroots support entrepreneurships biofuels effort

What are the most important actions individuals here can take to make a difference?

I think it gets back to doing what you can. We all have our limits; I don’t know if I’m ever going to ride my bicycle to campus, for example…do what you can and it can add up. And the other thing is to set a good example as an individual.

Part of it is the education. Some people are easier to teach than others. I think one of the most profound things we need to do a better job with on sustainability is understand this people part of it. What does prompt a person to recycle? Some people, it’s because it’s the right thing to do. Some, it’s because they can get money back; it’s an incentive, money or something else. It’s an incentive that makes sense for the big picture, so it’s worth putting into place. Some people will never do it, they just won’t. I’m a landscape architect and a forester and a horticulture person, but we have faculty in psychology and sociology and public administration here at UNO that I want to help engage in asking those basic questions of people. We have limited resources so if there’s just a flat percentage of people who will never want to do it, at what point do we just quit trying? Or maybe we never quit trying? Or we do if it’s public resources and just focus on the people who will set a good example for everybody else. I don’t know. 

What do you wish more people here knew regarding sustainability?

That it can pay back financially. Not all of the green in sustainability is environmental green; it can be money green. Part of it potentially is an investment toward the future, might be cost savings toward your electric bill, but I also see entrepreneurship opportunities that are huge. That could be food production. As we invest in Omaha and the combined sewer project, and we use landscaping as a best management practice to actually treat and hold on to storm water, we don’t yet have enough green industry companies, I don’t think, that are well-versed in taking care of some of these bioretention and rain gardens that are very different than some of these just-mow-the-turf kind of a thing. 

I spent 20 years as a UNL faculty member and Extension person, so part of my responsibility was to teach the green industry statewide how to design better and how to work with landscapes, and again, some of them are not comfortable going in a different direction; they’re doing just fine with what they do. I also hear from them that if the homeowners don’t ask for something new, they’re not going to do it; so unless I get a homeowner to ask for a rain garden, the nursery person may not design one for them. Sometimes the money thing can be a two-edged sword in terms of, ‘We’re doing fine and we don’t need to do anything innovative’ vs. all the incentives to get people to do things. 

The other main thing here is that I wish sustainability wasn’t so polarized and politicized right now. I think that sustainability ends up being directly connected to certain political views, certain political parties, agendas, causes, whatever. And if you define it as saving some for our grandkids, it should be one of the most universal no brainer things congress could actually agree on. There’s actually several states in the country that have either introduced or approved legislation, passed legislation to basically limit sustainability, ban it, or to not use that word that it’s perceived as something that will be a federal mandate to develop land in a particular way; it’s basically socialism…the fear factor and the politics of some of this stuff is just nuts. I like to define sustainability as wise resource use, helping others and striving to make a difference. You can really boil it down to that simple context. If you ask somebody if they agree with that, who would not agree with that?

I wish more people knew this quote, again, Einstein: “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” We have excellent examples and inspiration all around us to draw from nature in getting to more sustainable methods and designs. And ultimately, they cost less as well, another great incentive. Although I’ve had people say to me that if a sustainable landscape design didn’t cost less the day it was installed, they didn’t want it; ignoring the huge paybacks in money, quality-of-life, environmental benefits, et cetera.

What resources can help people here learn and understand more about the issue?

The UNO Master Plan is available through the web as a PDF document (http://www.unomaha.edu/news/docs/UNO-Sustainability-Master-Plan.pdf). It basically covers every aspect that the university sees as something to be more sustainable, so it’s water, it’s energy, we don’t have enough parking spaces and will have fewer over time so we have to figure out how to get people out of their cars and on buses and other ways to get to campus. There’s a huge section on campus culture. Facilities will definitely put in low-flow shower head in the dorms to save water because residential use on campus is one big water user, but we have to understand how to teach students to just turn the water tap off when they’re done. 

The master plan is one reference just to acknowledge the full context of seeing what we’ve already had a lot of successes; these are the areas that can actually be fruitful relative to gains in sustainability. It also pushes the idea that people are part of this, it’s the social, economic and environmental parts of sustainability; you have to have all three to make a difference and have this stuff work. 

There are goals in there for 2025 and 2050. It’s not an overnight thing at all. Admittedly, there are some goals there that are pretty controversial; people are thinking, “How on earth are we going to do that?” There are technologies on the horizon that are going to help us manage and be more sustainable that we’re not even sure about yet. So for us to have a goal that seems overly optimistic, that may not because the technologies may really help us out in achieving some of these goals. And if there’s conservation through OPPD, MUD, some of these major utilities, that’s going to help the campus, too.

And for learning, there’s the new sustainability minor for students and there’s the sustainable concentration in the bachelor of general studies. And Creighton has a sustainability major at this point. Just the fact that we have the educational framework now to help students—I think there’s general agreement that it’s not as if students are going to take these courses and become sustainability managers at corporations, it’s that everybody is using sustainability as an umbrella to see the world differently, to be more profitable as a company and treat you employees better, and use your resources more wisely. 

I should mention Omaha by Design, just their collective work. As I communicate with landscape architecture colleagues across the country, Omaha has one of the best reputations anywhere for people’s ability to work together for community good in the design/planning professions. That’s the combined sewer, the urban design element, the environmental element, a lot of that has been focused through Connie Spellman and Omaha By Design, but I think it’s the Midwestern work ethic. Our ability to work together, which you need to be able to do to have better planning and design and better community; I think we’re blessed to have whatever we have in the Midwest, whatever is in the water. You need that, for sure. So as conservative as we tend to be, which sometimes is a political issue, our people part seems good to the core and that’s helping immensely. 


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