UW’s UniverCity Year program to partner with Pepin County

The Chippewa River as it flows through Durand in Pepin County. Image courtesy of Travis Dewitz

Pepin County is the latest partner for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s UniverCity Year program, which brings faculty, students, and community members together to improve the sustainability, resilience, and general wellbeing of Wisconsin’s communities. Launched in 2016 with the Wisconsin Idea in mind, this program facilitates engagement between the UW–Madison learning community and localities across Wisconsin, bridging research and community knowledge to address some of the greatest challenges facing Wisconsin’s local governments.

Map of Pepin County WI
Pepin County, Wisconsin

Now in its fourth year, UniverCity Year has engaged with hundreds of students and faculty members on dozens of projects with the City of Monona, Dane County, and Green County. Pepin County offers new opportunities for engagement on a number of economic development, sustainability, and land use projects that require interdisciplinary problem-solving and ingenuity.

“We know we have a lot to learn from Pepin, and they are eager to learn from us,” said Gavin Luter, director of the UniverCity Alliance and the UniverCity Year program. “Ultimately, we want to see both UW–Madison and Pepin be in a better place after we work with them. We hope to create actionable products that ensure a better quality of life for all residents in the county. We would also like to see as much resident involvement as possible. The more our UW students and faculty work alongside residents and local officials, the better their educational experiences will be.”

The Pepin County community will be at the heart of the UniverCity Year program. While UniverCity Year will administer the program and provide resources for faculty and community members, the three-year partnership relies on the community to determine which challenges should be addressed and what projects would be most impactful.

“As one of the smallest counties in Wisconsin, we saw this partnership as a chance to provide greater services to our residents and to initiate meaningful projects that will have positive outcomes for those living within Pepin County,” said Maria Nelson, the Emergency Management Director, Zoning Administrator, & Land Information Office in the Pepin County Land Conservation and Planning Department. “We believe that the partnership will result in projects and research that will help us to improve the health, quality of life, the environment, and our rural economy.”

Once the projects have been identified, UniverCity Year staff match each project to interested UW–Madison faculty members, who then incorporate the selected project into their coursework. UniverCity Year provides support to the faculty by facilitating interactions with the community and providing funding opportunities to supplement or enhance course work as it relates to the project.

“Pepin County is excited about the potential of our economic development projects to help support our efforts to promote Pepin County and our small local businesses,” said Nelson. “We hope to complete an inventory that helps us to attract complementary businesses that can be supported with our existing infrastructure. Additionally, the environmental and water issue projects will hopefully help us to reverse the trend of groundwater pollution and identify solutions that can be implemented in our agricultural community to protect those living in rural areas. There are also a couple projects designed to enhance our solid waste and recycling program which could potentially improve services to our residents. We are hoping that the environmental engineering students at UW–Madison can help us to determine base flood elevations for floodplains so that we can help people understand the risks associated with building in certain areas of the county.”

Upon completion of these projects, students will present their solutions to the county for consideration. UniverCity Year staff will then continue to aid Pepin County in evaluating the feasibility of student recommendations, implementing projects, and reporting on outcomes.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Pepin,” said Luter. “This is the first community we’re working with that’s in the northwestern part of the state, so it’s a great opportunity to take UCY on the road and show that we are a true embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.”

In fact, this program extends beyond identified community and the campus, with generous support coming from American Family Insurance as well as the UW–Madison’s Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, COWS, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and alumnus John Holton.

“The UniverCity Year program continues to produce value for communities across the state. American Family is proud to support efforts like this that spur innovations to address challenging issues in communities large and small,” said, American Family Insurance Associate Vice President of Community Investment and Partnerships, Judd Schemmel. “With the previous three partners, we’ve started to see results; jumpstarting affordable housing plans, advancing innovative low-carbon emission transportation solutions, design and financing plans for alternative energy systems, and more. We’re proud to be supporting expansion of the UniverCity Year program to more communities all across Wisconsin.”

UniverCity Year is a program of the UniverCity Alliance (univercity.wisc.edu), a cross-campus effort to make UW–Madison better positioned to help cities solve their most pressing challenges.