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Galvanizing Tomorrow’s Civic Leaders: The Intersection Between Voting and Urban Sustainability

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By: Elizabeth Walsh, Grand Challenges Cohort Program Coordinator, Urban Sustainability Cohort

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As Election Day draws closer, voting-eligible American citizens have the hard-won opportunity to cast our votes in service of our personal visions of the public good. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, the onslaught of deadly wildfires, hurricanes and extreme weather associated with escalating climate change, the growing awareness of systemic racism, and an increasingly bitter political climate, it is more important than ever to exercise our right to vote and our capacity to envision a brighter future through powerful conversations with diverse voices. 

Comprised of diverse faculty, students, staff and community members, the DU Grand Challenges Collective Impact Cohort on Urban Sustainability has been convening diverse regional stakeholders to engage in powerful conversations, transdisciplinary research, and civic action to advance a shared public vision of “A Denver Region that supports just, inclusive, and thriving communities where people and nature flourish.” Below, we share some of the Cohort’s work given the relevance to issues on the ballot in next week’s election. 

Powerful Conversations 

Through DUGC A Community Table Conversations, the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Racial Equity Ideas Round-Up, and the Ethics and Ecological Economics Forum (EEE Forum), Cohort members have been convening diverse stakeholders to critical conversations on complex challenges. 

This Spring, Cohort members hosted A Community Table conversations to explore how each of the Cohort pilot project teams could best respond to the challenges of 2020. A series of these conversations focused on providing feedback to the City of Denver’s Climate Action Task Force, which resulted in a set of policy recommendations and a 2020 City of Denver ballot measure that would increase sales taxes by .25 percent to raise money to combat climate change, including training people for careers in clean energy industries, taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of homes, and focusing investments in “communities of color, under-resourced communities, and communities most vulnerable to climate change.” 

In June, Cohort member Professor Susan Daggett, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute (RMLUI), launched a discussion series to address issues of land use, race, and equity. Beginning with the history of redlining and the role of zoning and land use to perpetuate segregation and discrimination in our society, the RMLUI Ideas RoundUp has convened approximately 100 people every two weeks to consider a variety of issues through a racial equity lens: community engagement, transportation, housing, access to greenspace, and health. A final RoundUp will occur on November 17th with a report out of the results of these discussions and discussion of next steps. 

Transdisciplinary Research 

DUGC Sustainability Cohort members are leading research and evaluation efforts across disciplines and beyond campus boundaries to advance collective impact towards a future where people and nature flourish. 

Dr. David Carlson, a co-leader of the Cohort’s Beyond GDP Team and founder of the EEE Forum, has recently authored a draft discussion paper, available for public review, toward developing a visually compelling conceptual framework of human and ecological wellbeing for Colorado. The Beyond GDP Team recognizes that GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is an insufficient measure of progress for economic development.  

In a nutshell, Beyond GDP leaders are working with DU colleagues, NGOs and other outside groups and institutions to develop a consensus set of key statewide measurable indicators of human and ecological wellbeing (“HEW”) for Colorado by spring 2021. Dr. Carlson’s draft paper, developed along the lines of the “Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries” by Oxford University ecological economist Kate Raworth, is intended to foster discussion among interested parties. The 2-page Beyond GDP Overview and the 19-page Colorado Doughnut paper are available for review and comment on the Beyond GDP webpage

Metro Denver Nature Alliance (Metro DNA), a key member of the Sustainability Cohort, has recently secured funding to launch the development of a regional conservation assessment. The Nature Conservancy will be leading the effort to conduct an ecological assessment of the Denver region, and Metro DNA is convening a team of technical advisors to assist in designing and evaluating the data that is being gathered and collected. If interested in collaborating, please contact Dana Coehlo, Alliance Director, at  

Dr. Cara DiEnno, Associate Director of the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) continues to amplify community voices in public policy through a recent research partnership with the newly formed City of Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) and its Office of Community and Business Engagement.  

DOTI has sponsored two DU doctoral students, Joe Chesnut (Geography) and Katie George Zehr (Research Methods and Statistics), to conduct an evaluation of community engagement processes following the implementation of key infrastructure projects designed to enhance the safety, accessibility, health, and climate readiness of mobility systems, particularly through the City’s Vision Zero initiative. This election, Denver voters will also have an opportunity to influence the future of DOTI through a vote on ballot measure 2D: Creating a board for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.  

The DUGC Sustainability Cohort generally encourages public dialogue and deliberation to help guide public investments in service of a Denver region that supports just, inclusive, and thriving communities where people and nature flourish. The Cohort encourages Denver voters to give careful consideration this election season to critical ballot measures including those listed below.  

Civic Action 

To learn more about the DUGC Urban Sustainability Cohort or to get involved, please reach out to Dr. Elizabeth Walsh at  

You can also learn more about local ballot measures through recent reporting: