Leading Sustainable Transformation in Mars, PA

 

The borough of Mars, PA—about a 10-minute drive from Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus—is small, only about half of a square mile. The population was 1,699 at the 2010 census. Like many rural communities these days, its downtown area faces challenges including depopulation and poverty, and subsequent economic disinvestment. In Mars’s case, the disinvestment was particularly hard-hitting—they lost their Shop ‘n’ Save, drastically reducing their access to fresh food.

(Mars) Mayor Gregg Hartung approached the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment, wanting to see if Chatham could do something to help. He was particularly focused on the grocery store. I had my Leadership for Transitions to Sustainability class coming up, so I suggested that we could look more broadly at what residents were interested in. 

Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Business Thomas Macagno

Macagno’s course relies on “transition management”, which he describes as “a methodology for sustainable innovation.” 

“Classical thinking,” says Macagno, “is to say ‘oh, we need a market, let’s raise a couple million dollars and then put it into place.’ Then that’s done and you discover, oh, it doesn’t work here, so we’re out all this time and money.” 

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 “But transition management,” he continues, “is about bringing people together and helping them develop a consensus around where to go, and then taking a baby step.”

“Bringing people together,” in this case, took the form of four focus groups, facilitated by the 19 Master of Sustainability and Master of Sustainability + MBA students in the course. The focus groups were held at a retirement community, a public library, a weekly community dinner, and a brewery. “Through that we were trying to engage different demographics and try to really hear everyone’s voice and what they think about the town,” says Nelson DiBiase, MSUS+MBA ’21.

Crucially, the focus groups were not about directly asking residents what they wanted. “People will say ‘oh, we want a grocery store’ but there’s no grocery store chain that’s going to go into Mars because there’s not enough population and foot traffic to financially support that,” says Macagno. Instead, the students invited residents to imagine themselves in the future, and then read them scenarios, and solicited their reactions.

One of the scenarios went like this:

“Imagine in the future, you’re walking down Grand Ave., under a wide shaded sidewalk, passing by updated storefronts and greenery, possibly on your way to the NASA Discovery Center. This multifunctional building is a new technology hub for the borough of MARS, providing educational, job, and tourism opportunities. A family on a bike ride passes you by on a new bike trail, one of the many recent community enhancements. Before heading to the science center you stop by a business for a snack."

“This approach gets them to open up their minds. We asked them what they like about the scenario and what they don’t they like. Four main areas came up: food access, mobility—for a lot of the elderly residents, the sidewalks being in poor condition was a big issue, for example—, the local economy, and preserving community identity. A lot of people want that feeling of a small town in America; they don’t want to turn into a strip mall town,” says DiBiase.  

After the focus groups met, the students—working together as one big group—compiled their notes and identified patterns that spoke to the major concerns of the citizens of Mars. They then structured the feedback and developed a report on their findings, which they presented to Mayor Hartung and President of Mars Council Michael Fleming on December 4., 2019.  

And what happens next? “The project is in a very early phase of transition management—the “empathize” phase, trying to define the problem” says Macagno, noting that the course is only 14 weeks long. “No one felt comfortable saying ‘all right; this is what you should do’ in the report, so students presented case studies of ways that other cities had addressed similar concerns. In a next phase, says Macagno, the mayor could assemble a group of citizens to help drive the project forward. The group would identify which measures they wanted to work on, and try to run versions of them, for example, a pop-up market to try to address the issue of food access. 

“I came from Penn State, where it was like, ‘here’s what you need to do to get a good grade in this class,’” says DiBiase. “But this was a leadership course, and it was interesting to see who was truly stepping up and becoming leaders within the group, and seeing how they managed to get the class to get everything done that needed to be done. Tom was a great professor, and he helped us out and we still had lectures, but the management of the project was led through the students.”

“When you find out you’re working on this huge project with 19 people and writing one paper, it’s scary that you have to rely on so many people, and on so many things going 100% correctly,” he continues. “As students, we were all stressed out by the situation, not really sure where we were going to go, but at the end it all came together, and we were able to create this really well-written project that we’re happy to present to the mayor.”

A project this big is something very realistic, and experiencing it firsthand while still being able to make some mistakes, without losing a job, is really great experience for everyone. It was a very cool class, for sure.

—Nelson DiBiase, MSUS+MBA ’21