For Benjamin Chrisinger, Sustainability is a Widely Encompassing Field

May 10, 2010 — Shortly after Benjamin Chrisinger arrived at the University of Virginia for orientation, he involved himself in environmental issues.

Having run the plastic recycling program at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, he was pleased to discover the Conservation Advocate Program, in the first-year dorms, and signed up on the spot. At the time the program was administered by U.Va. Recycling and is now a Student Council initiative.

Now scheduled to graduate from the University on May 23, Chrisinger has made environmental issues the center of his academic and community life over the past four years.

An environmental science major in the College of Arts & Sciences, Chrisinger interned the summer after his first year at a community garden at the Airlie Foundation Local Food Project near his home in Warrenton. The foundation's mission is to promote the relationship between the physical and social sciences. "This piqued my interest in food and gardening," Chrisinger said.

While working at the foundation, he learned about Community Food Systems, a graduate-level, project-based class taught by Tanya Denckla Cobb and Timothy Beatley in the U.Va. School of Architecture's Department of Urban and Environmental Planning. He was apprehensive about signing up, but was glad he did.

"It totally affirmed my interest in planning and food systems planning. It framed where I wanted to go forward," he said.

He changed his major to planning. "Sustainability was already a goal and ingrained in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and the whole school. There's a commitment to sustainability," Chrisinger said.

It was the hands-on application of knowledge in planning that swayed him.

Having the two majors is a perfect pairing, he said. Environmental science provides a scientific understanding of the environmental problems we are facing now, and planning helps transfer those discoveries to policy, he added.

Outside of classes, Chrisinger continued his environmental activism. He worked to create an Environmental Sustainability Committee on Student Council. The goal was to "bring together a broad group of students from different perspectives, but all concerned about sustainability," he said. "Each defined sustainability in a way that made sense to them. It's easy to pigeonhole the topic, but this group challenged the perception."

They worked on sustainability issues related to dining services, Greek life and the arts. They also initiated a program, Caught Green Handed, which recognizes people doing something "green" – such as recycling or turning off the water when brushing teeth – with T-shirts made from recycled bottles.

He also helped plan and launch an organic garden on Grounds that emphasizes sustainable practices.

With the conservation advocate program, with which he worked for two years, Chrisinger designed a handbook for resident staff to promote sustainable living practices. This year, as the head resident on the Lawn, he gave a training presentation to the University's Residence Life staff to aid them in making dorm residents aware of sustainability issues and to encourage water and energy conservation.

"It’s my perception that in dorm living is where energies are best spent. It's about developing expectations about what it is like to be a University student," he said.

Chrisinger is also the undergraduate representative on the President's Committee on Sustainability, created in fall 2008 to advise administrators on sustainability issues.

He has learned at U.Va. that it's important to know how to communicate. "It's one thing to be frustrated, but it's important to articulate frustration and plan how to effect change and rally student support to make a case," he said. "The communication piece is the most important."

Last summer Chrisinger was part of a research team for Cobb and Beatley's upcoming book on community food systems across the U.S., an experience that broadened his understanding of urban planning as a tool for addressing diverse and multicultural communities.

As part of a planner's professional toolkit, Chrisinger came to realize that food systems go beyond providing food that is sustainable and healthy. Sustainable food-related initiatives also have a capacity to build communities, create economic stability and offer skill training, provide a means to mentor youth, create cultural pride and build leadership.

That recognition of the societal impact of food systems spurred Chrisinger to apply for and receive a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study "Food Systems' Role in Community Development and Urban Revitalization for Non-Majority Populations." It is one of only five fellowships awarded nationally in planning.

He will launch his research while pursing a master's in urban and environmental planning at U.Va.'s School of Architecture.

With only a handful of graduate schools committed to sustainability and with U.Va.'s focus on issues, problems and opportunities related to economics, equity, food and health, Chrisinger said his decision to return to the University was easy.

"The commitment of the faculty is to be on the leading edge of food system planning," he said. "It's a table that planners are realizing they need to be around to facilitate and lead the discussion."

Chrisinger is already contributing to that dialogue.

— By Jane Ford