Good Works: The Resilience Research Center

Teachers, students and parents gathered to celebrate the destruction of a school. Defunct for many years the building that once housed Badger Rock Middle School was finally demolished in late March to make way for a new vision of secondary education. A modern construct will stand its place to offer lessons in growing vegetables, healthy nutrition and living in a sustainable community.

As bulldozers and heavy lifting equipment cleared away the rubble nearby supporters shared their monthly chili supper at the offices of Summit Credit Union on Rimrock Road. Hosted by the Madison chapter of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based urban agriculture organization, a community united to make a brighter future met to exchange ideas and news of what’s come.

“We’re going to teach food security, food sovereignty,” said farmer Robert Pierce of Growing Power. “We want to teach people that it’s important to know where your food comes from, what you eat and how you eat it.”

With a focus on urban agriculture and project-based instruction an innovative charter school, set to open in Fall 2011, will be at the heart of a comprehensive mixed-used development that will include a neighborhood garden, a community center, food related retail opportunities and a renewable energy services center.

“This is going to be a place where we can figure out new ways of learning,” said Badger Rock Middle School governing council president Nan Youngerman. “This facility could serve as a model to other communities in Wisconsin and around the country.”

In development for more than a year the project is called the Resilience Research Center. With plans for creating a working laboratory of sorts, organizers aim to demonstrate the practical applications of a truly sustainable community. Orchestrated by the Center for Resilient Cities a consortium of stakeholders has banded together in a grand experiment to show how a socially and environmentally conscience neighborhood can be made possible.

“Important in all of this is research, measurement and outreach,” said Resilient Cities executive director Thomas Dunbar. “We think it’s great to have new ideas, to be innovative. But we also think it’s essential that we monitor and measure results.”

Organizers hope to learn from the project as well as teach. Working in cooperation with the Madison Metropolitan School District, the University Wisconsin-Madison, Edgewood College, Madison Gas & Electric, Sustain Dane and Growing Power the Resilience Research Center will establish a longitudinal study to establish the effectiveness of urban agriculture and green energy generation as an effective way to reduce costs as well as protect the environment.

“It’s beyond sustainability. It’s building capacity of a neighborhood to respond to change in a positive way,” Dunbar said. “Deeply imbedded in that is knowing what the stressors are in any particular neighborhood and then knowing what change is important to adapt to.”

In this low-income community immediately south of the Beltline residents face challenges common to most urban settings. Working families with scant job prospects and limited financial resources often have trouble making ends meet. Homes are in need of repair and many loose their value. Children here typically qualify for free or reduced cost lunch programs. And access to nutritious foods can be difficult as there are few grocery stores nearby. With an eye toward improving the quality of life for all residents, supporters of the Resilience Research Center and Badger Rock Middle School in particular hope to provide educational opportunities that will boost the area as a whole.

“Our community has been neglected. It’s isolated and we don’t have a strong neighborhood in terms of a place for people to come together,” said Sara Alvarez, a parent and local real estate professional. “This school is what the neighborhood needs and the community center aspect of it will be really important.”

Central to the new project will be a community garden. Modeled after the very successful Growing Power program in Milwaukee started by Macarthur Genius Grant fellow Will Allen in 1993, the garden will provide fresh and sustainably grown vegetables for both students and people in the neighborhood. Intensive agriculture on the site could earn as much as $5 per square foot or $200,000 an acre with produce sold within the community or to area restaurants. Run by local farmer Robert Pierce, a program of urban agriculture and nutrition education will work to strengthen the neighborhood as well as its residents.

“As African-Americans we suffer more diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, all those ailments at one time because of how we eat,” Pierce said. “And if we’re not going to get that education from other people we have to teach ourselves.”

This story first appeared in the May issue of the Capital Region Business Journal philanthropy feature “Good Works”

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.