Texas CityLab Gives Students Hands-on, Real World Experience

Sam Day-Woodruff

Texas CityLab offers an invaluable applied learning program at The University of Texas at Austin. It is based upon drawing interdisciplinary resources at the university to provide novel and creative solutions to local communities. The Office of Sustainability's newsletter editor, Shannon Geison, sat down with Sam Day-Woodruff, the graduate student on the program.

SG: What is Texas CityLab?

SDW: TexasCityLab is an initiative of UT Austin’s Center for Sustainable Development. In its third year, the program is led by Dr. Robert Young, the principal investigator. This is an exciting concept where we connect communities to resources and students at the university. For example, a city will say they have 10 or 15 different projects that they would like to explore with us and get some ideas. Texas CityLab then finds professors and classes who have an interest in service learning, who want their students to exercise their tangible skills and knowledge in the relevant subject matters. The reason why it is interdisciplinary is because sustainability touches on everything.

This year our partner city is the city of Pflugerville – a midsize community just north of Austin. They have projects that UT students will be working on – including creating a creek side district. This is a cool project because it shows how you can have commercial spaces next to nature and have it be preserved and sustainable. We have projects on preservation. There is a class that will be looking at redeveloping a half block in downtown Pflugerville because the city is looking to relocate some of their public facilities. There are potential projects surrounding parks and public art space as well. There are a lot of different projects, and Texas CityLab essentially connects these cities with classes and professors that are interested in that specific subject matter.

SG: How did you get involved in Texas CityLab?

SDW: I entered a graduate program in the School of Architecture in order to learn how to implement sustainability principles in communities. CityLab offers me a perfect learning opportunity. I grew up in Austin, so I have seen how Austin and surrounding communities have struggled and grown through the years. Many of these communities – from an urban planning perspective – are over or beyond their capacity and have been having many struggles providing services for new residents. They are struggling to provide affordable and accessible resources to community members. Texas City Labs is a way to use students’ skills and knowledge to provide solutions for communities. In turn, these communities will have a menu of options to consider.

SG: What specifically has been your favorite project?

SDG: This is my first semester so things are just about to come to fruition. I was recently in a class that gave presentations on planning for community agriculture in Pflugerville. In that class, a geospatial analysis was completed to determine which areas would be good for community gardens. Another course this semester is looking at rainwater capture devices for public facilities. One public facility in Pflugerville has a spring on the property where the water runs down the street. It looks wasteful. This class is preparing a method to capture the water to repurpose it. I am especially enthusiastic about a class that is preparing a deep history of Pflugerville from its founding in the 19th century. It offers such a rich history with exceptional students engaged in this project.

SG: Who is involved with CityLab?

SDW: Both undergraduate and graduate students participate. The class that is doing the cost benefit analysis of water capture facilities is an undergraduate course in the School of Engineering. We have classes from the School of Engineering’s planning program. In the past, we have had courses from McCombs. We also have had classes for real estate development. Next semester, we are partnering with a course in the School of Law. As you can see, it’s really all across the board.

SG: Why is it important for something like sustainable development to be interdisciplinary?

SDG: It’s essential. Problems in sustainability are complicated and wicked because it requires many people working together across a broad range of disciplines. For instance, you may have the technical expertise to solve a problem, but you really need the community buy-in.  It’s basically a combination of utilizing many skillsets to find strong solutions.