The 2023 Lynx Lecturers from left to right: Cathy Bodine, Michelle Marks, Assia Crawford, and Marc Swackhamer.

CAP Researchers Address Climate Change Solutions from the Ground Up

October 30, 2023

From creating supportive, nurturing structures for saplings in the LoDo Lab to preventing inequitable impacts from climate change by facilitating transformative, collaborative partnerships in the Community Collaborative Research Center, research in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at CU Denver addresses today’s environmental challenges to create a healthier and more sustainable future.

Grand Challenge Contenders Transcend Disciplines to Solve the Climate Crisis

The CU Denver Grand Challenge Initiative is part of a multi-year investment that aims to position the university to be internationally known for its research and creative activities. The goal of these investments is to focus on collaborative research activities that address global issues.

The initiative began in 2021, and since then, CAP researchers have been well represented among awardees, particularly at Future Fest, an annual CU Denver campus event celebrating achievements in research and innovation.

This year’s Future Fest celebration welcomed a presentation by Architecture Department Chair Marc Swackhamer and Assistant Professor Assia Crawford as they discussed their current project, Biodegradable Landscape Infrastructure Pods (BLIP), which looks at landscape restoration after forest fires. Last year, Urban and Regional Planning Department Chair Carrie Makarewicz and Professor Jeremy Németh introduced the Community Collaborative Research Center (CCRC).

Both BLIP and the CCRC involve and empower researchers from disciplines outside of the College of Architecture and Planning to expand the potential for generating impactful solutions to environmental challenges experienced around the state of Colorado and beyond.

Small Structures Yield Long-Term Solutions

Rendering of the LoDo Lab's Nurse Pod design.
LoDo Lab’s Nurse Pod Project

Following the outbreak of three major forest fires in 2020, CAP’s LoDo Lab began work to address reforestation through research in design and biology to provide supportive and protective “housing” for saplings.

“Unfortunately, efforts to plant trees are often driven by optics and are largely unsuccessful,” said Swackhamer at Future Fest. “A recent study found that global ponderosa pine replacement efforts yielded an average success rate of only 25% and nurseries are also struggling to keep up with the damage of trees, in part, because many seedlings die when transplanted into the fields.”

BLIP is inspired by nurse logs and fallen trees that provide seedlings with shade and nutrients as they decay. Using biodegradable material made from mycelium, the root-like, underground structure of fungi, LoDo Lab is designing three-dimensional printed vessels that decay over time as they nurse sapling trees through their first critical years of life. 

BLIP is led by the project’s principal investigator (PI) Swackhamer along with Crawford, Assistant Professor of Biology Sara Branco, and Associate Professor of Biology Brian Buma. 

Wide-Ranging Perspectives Create Lasting Results

Faculty, researchers, and practitioners attend a Community Engaged Research training.
Faculty, researchers, and practitioners attend the CCRC’s Community Engaged Research training.

The College of Architecture and Planning is addressing climate change from seedlings to the skies, from deforestation to the quality of the air we breathe. We recognize that the most effective and powerful way to confront issues of climate change and community health is by bringing multiple perspectives and varied expertise to the table.

At the 2022 Future Fest celebration, Makarewicz presented the three main reasons researchers struggle to make an impact on climate change, and the center’s plan to overcome this complex challenge. First, academic research is frequently siloed. Second, even top researchers can fail to understand the real issues faced by marginalized communities, lacking a connection with those most affected by global shifts. Third, researchers lack the resources and “know-how” for maintaining long-term collaboration within our communities. The CCRC was created so that academic researchers and our communities can collaborate to address place-based health and wellbeing inequities related to climate change through partnered research, training for students, faculty members, community partners, and drop-in research services.

In just one year since the advent of the CCRC, the center has developed relationships, began projects, and provided technical assistance to organizations including GreenLations, Cultivando, a community benefits agreement collaboration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)Sustainable Mobility Division, groups in the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, Regional Transportation District (RTD), and more to explore issues of air pollution, sustainable mobility energy and equity, and the community’s voice in redevelopment and public infrastructure. Their efforts are far-reaching as they take on challenges brought on by climate change.

The CCRC team is comprised of four co-directors, Makarewicz and Németh along with Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Science Gregory Simon, and Clinical Professor Emerita of Anthropology Jean Scandlyn.

This interdisciplinary team continues to grow. The following faculty, students, and staff are all actively involved in projects currently taking place in the center: Urban and Regional Planning Professor Austin Troy, Assistant Professor Priyanka deSouza, Associate Professor Manish Shirgaokar, Associate Professor of Sociology Esther Sullivan, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Katherine Dickinson, Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Public History Program Rachel Gross, College of Architecture and Planning Associate Dean Jody Beck, Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Science Benjamin Crawford, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Faculty Development and Advancement Karen Sobel, Associate Professor of Community and Behavioral Health Virginia Visconti, Associate Professor of Health and Behavioral Sciences Ronica Rooks, PhD students Paulina Erices and Emilia Oscilowicz, master’s students Aislinn Droski and Erika Jermé, and Professional Research Assistant, Carla Nyquist.

The College of Architecture and Planning is addressing climate change from growing strong seedlings to improving the quality of the air we breathe. Thanks to the support of the Grand Challenge Initiative and collaboration from other disciplines at CU Denver and within our communities, we are filled with hope for the long-term health and wellbeing of our planet.