The Pittsburgh region, long polluted with industrial waste and wracked by poor air quality, once garnered the unfortunate descriptor of “hell with the lid taken off.” Things are better today—Pittsburgh even tops many most-livable-city lists. It also seems to have found its Garden of Eden in a bucolic 388-acre farm 20 miles north of the metro area in Gibsonia, Pa., where Chatham University is building a school of sustainability from the ground up. Gifted to the school in 2008, Eden Hall Farm now serves as a satellite of Chatham’s downtown site and the new home of the university’s Falk School of Sustainability.
With plans for future expansion, the Falk School now runs four degree programs: a bachelor’s and master’s in sustainability, a master’s in food studies, and a dual master’s in sustainability and business administration.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the area served as a farm and a retreat from smoggy Pittsburgh for the H.J. Heinz Co.’s female employees; it was established by Sebastian Mueller, a German immigrant who worked with his cousin Henry J. Heinz for 50 years to create the eponymous food empire. The location is a perfect fit for Chatham, which counts environmental activist and author Rachel Carson as an alum, to create a living lab to support its sustainability education efforts.
Guided by a master plan created by Kansas City’s BNIM and Philadelphia’s Andropogon Associates, Chatham welcomed its first students to the new Eden Hall campus this fall. To reach this phase, the university has invested roughly $46 million and is apt to spend even more in the next five to seven years to complete the next phase, which includes additional residence halls to reach the ultimate goal of accommodating 1,500 students.
Early projects completed on the campus, with architectural, interior, and landscape design by Seattle’s Mithun, have all the trappings of a forward-thinking, green oasis: the adaptation of existing horse and dairy barns, new buildings designed for net-zero operation, LEED Platinum certification, living building aspirations, solar arrays, on-site water treatment, and more than 40 geothermal wells feeding the campus’ energy loop. But it’s the way in which Falk dean Peter Walker is attempting to equip his students to have a postgraduate impact and a job that makes Chatham’s efforts stand out.
After years with the International Red Cross and running a research lab at Tufts University focusing on humanitarian crises and war zones, Walker joined Chatham 12 months ago. With years of tackling disasters under his belt—years of observing what happens, as he says, “when you get sustainability wrong”—Walker was ready to head upstream where long-term solutions can begin.
In his eyes, studying sustainability doesn’t mean “wearing hair shirts and going back to nature,” but rather taking an overarching healthy approach to education and, subsequently, life. Placing students in a setting like Eden Hall, he says, where they can live and work on a fully sustainable campus in small cohorts (Falk has about 120 students across its four programs) while creating a welcoming and engaging setting for the surrounding community, is key to the school’s success.
“Like many cities, Pittsburgh has some of the worst extremes of racial segregation, poverty, rich-versus-poor educational areas, and unemployment,” says Walker. “On the positive side, this part of Pennsylvania also has family farms, and we have a mayor and city that want to start connecting back to those farms. Part of our job is solving our own problems, and if we can do that I think it provides a brilliant basis for our students. They leave here as people who can solve problems, and that’s what every employer wants.”
Walker’s premise of community engagement in sustainability is clear in the campus plan, which offers public wooded walking trails, a gorgeous amphitheater that features performing arts programming, and space for large-scale art installations. But that ideal seeps out of the campus, too, predominantly through the work of the school’s graduate students.
Shauna Kearns, an apprentice baker, was attracted to the Falk’s masters in food studies program after struggling with what to do with her undergraduate business degree. While Eden Hall provides an expansive setting to study food and its overarching issues among the organic gardens, apiaries, and vintage root cellar located on the grounds, Kearns’ thesis plan was to research and write about the impact of community wood-fired ovens—common in Canada but less so in the United States.
Along the way, Kearns figured she should be baking in one, too. Some Internet sleuthing led to the discovery of an oven down the Monongahela River in the suburb of Braddock, Pa., which has struggled with a declining population since the collapse of the Pittsburgh steel industry. She began making regular bus trips, rising sourdough in tow, to bake there. It wasn’t what she expected. Built in 2008 as part of a mayoral initiative to revitalize the town’s main drag, the oven could only handle 15 loaves of bread and its construction wasn’t quite up to snuff.
“A lot of people in Braddock were interested in buying this bread,” Kearns learned, “so I sold the mayor on the idea of building a much larger outdoor oven.” Using proceeds from the sale of loaves at a local farm stand (Braddock residents receive a significant discount) and in the Chatham community, she was able to raise enough capital to fund the construction of a new oven.
“Initially, that’s what helped make the whole initiative sustainable,” she says, “because I was just trying to cover my costs. The Chatham community played a key role in that.”
Kearns further engaged the community by partnering with the nonprofit Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, which teaches trades to people with significant barriers to employment, many of them living in halfway homes in Braddock, to tackle the masonry work. The result of her efforts is an oven with a tremendously increased capacity. Kearns can now crank out 100 loaves per bake, after which the hearth is opened for community use. She’s also developing a baking training curriculum as part of her work in the community.
“That’s what I think is so cool about bread,” Kearns says. “Everybody connects with it.”
Curriculum and Community Combine
The Chatham community places a priority on seeing ideas like Kearns’ become reality. That is especially true when it comes to the school’s two-year dual master’s program in sustainability and business administration. Partnering with major business accelerators in the Pittsburgh area, students are learning not only how to create sustainable products but also how to make them viable business ventures, says MBA program director Ting- Ting (Rachel) Chung.
“At the end of the day, you can have a very sustainable idea or product, but if nobody is using it, what is the point?” says Chung. “You can’t really change the world until you can change the consumer’s behavior.”
To drive home that point, Chung says Chatham turns to local innovators. One of these is the accelerator program startup AlphaLab, which provides an extensive mentoring network and a selective program that provides six to eight companies with funding and office space to get their ideas off the ground. Chatham also has a number of marketing gurus on its professional faculty. Meredith Grelli’s background in brand management for Heinz has led to her co-ownership of hip craft whiskey producer Wigle Whiskey, where past and present Chatham students on staff help develop a new flavor each year. Access to the vibrant community of entrepreneurial expertise also inspires Chatham students to explore social innovations to drive sustainable changes. Brian McCombs, one of the school’s first dual master’s students, recently joined PittMoss, a Pittsburgh startup that produces a sustainable alternative to sphagnum peat moss.
This integrated approach isn’t relegated to the dual-degree program at Chatham. In the bachelor’s and master’s of sustainability tracks, students are required to take courses in everything from scientific systems to the political economy. Molly Mehling, an assistant professor of ecology and sustainability, notes that with such a broad concept, and a diverse set of student interests and backgrounds, both programs are seeing a number of concentrations blooming around the base curriculum. Those explorations have the added benefit of helping students “discover their own passions” and instill a sense of open thinking she sees as critical to 21st-century problem-solving.
“We have very defined sectors that go about very complex problems with one approach and a narrow focus,” Mehling says. “When you open them up and combine them with something else, new solutions appear. I don’t think there’s any other way forward. We have to take this integrated approach to think beyond the short term.”
While Chatham seems to have figured how to approach sustainability on an institutional level, dean Walker isn’t ready to rest on his laurels. As he ponders future program offerings and growing Falk’s enrollment—he’s thinking big about global health and continuing to tap into the idea of rural livelihood.
Walker asks himself the same question every day, whether in his office or running the 1.5 miles from his house to Eden Hall. “
This is a pioneering venture; no one has tried to build a campus from the bottom up like this. I think we’ve got to be very careful not to fall into the trap of doing it the comfortable way,” he says. “What does it really mean to be a sustainable campus? I don’t think I’m ever going to answer that question fully, but I always have to be asking that every time we look to what courses we teach or how we interact with the community.”