Professor shows commitment to sustainable living

Phoebe Crisman says sustainability means creativity and innovation, not cutting back


“I don’t own a car, so I ride a bike,” Crisman said. “So for all these years — I’m in my fifties and I’ve never owned a car — I’ve typically lived in cities where I would take the subway or ride my bike, and I’ve been an avid biker since college.”

Stephanie Gross | Cavalier Daily

Born on a farm in a coal mining and farming community in western Pennsylvania to parents who lived through the Great Depression and the second World War, Assoc. Architecture Prof. Phoebe Crisman grew up learning how to live within her means. Sustainable living was not a lifestyle choice for her family, but an economic necessity. Her parents taught her to eat all the food on her plate and to not waste anything. Her family grew their own food, her dad hunted and they canned.

Sustainability continues to be a commitment deeply ingrained in the behavior, values and career of Crisman.

“I don’t own a car, so I ride a bike,” Crisman said. “So for all these years — I’m in my fifties and I’ve never owned a car — I’ve typically lived in cities where I would take the subway or ride my bike, and I’ve been an avid biker since college.”

Crisman’s students have noticed her sustainable ways of living too.

“She’s always practicing what she preaches,” said second-year Architecture student Madeleine McCutchon. “I always see her biking around Grounds. I don’t even know if she owns a car.”

Crisman has been a vegetarian since she was in seventh grade and tries to “eat low on the food chain.” Although not a vegan, she limits what animal products she eats because of her concern for the treatment of animals and the larger scale environmental impact of foods like red meat. Many believe human consumption of beef has a significant environmental impact due to the large amounts of pesticides, fuel, water and greenhouse gases required to produce and distribute it.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Architecture and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design with a degree in Urban Planning and Design, Crisman worked as a full-time professional architect for 12 years. She worked on projects to design new cities in Hong Kong and construct high rise buildings in Chicago.

While teaching and doing research in the Netherlands for a year after receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, Crisman’s career plans changed as she realized she could picture herself combining a career as a professional architect and as a professor.

Crisman worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years before arriving at the University in 2000. At the University, not only does Crisman teach classes in both the College and the School of Architecture, but she is also Director of the Environments and Sustainability concentration that is part of the Global Studies major. She also is co-chair of the University’s Committee on Sustainability.

Additionally, Crisman has a private practice in Charlottesville that, among other things, works in Norfolk, Va. and with environmental non-profit organizations to do environmental restoration.

To her, sustainability means living with concern for the planet and those around us — taking into account the effects of our everyday choices.

“Sustainability to me means not living beyond our means … if we use everything now, what will be left for future generations?” Crisman said. “It’s not just about solving a problem for the moment it’s about solving a problem for 100 years, or longer.”

To this end, Crisman makes an effort to limit her consumption. However, not living beyond our means does not necessarily mean we must make sacrifices.

“I don’t see it as a constricting idea,” Crisman said. “It’s actually an idea that should push us to be more creative [and] more innovative. Instead of continuing to do the things that aren’t working very well … we have to design a better way to live.”

Especially in recent years, the University has made sustainability a priority. Last year, the Committee on Sustainability passed the University’s first comprehensive sustainability plan. Reducing energy usage is a major focus. The University plans to partner with Dominion, an energy company in Virginia, to have solar power provide as much energy as possible through panels on top of buildings and solar fields off-Grounds.

The University has already put plans into effect. On April 18, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was present for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the solar array that was installed on the rooftop of Clemons Library in mid-February.

Through teaching at the University, Crisman said she hopes to inspire students to use their education to be agents for change in a world where the need for sustainable living is increasingly essential. Undergraduates can take advantage of the Global Sustainability minor or the Environments and Sustainability concentration that is part of the Global Studies major.

Crisman emphasizes a multidisciplinary perspective to approaching sustainability and likened the issue to an iceberg.

“If you only look at what’s immediately visible, you don’t actually think about all that other stuff,” Crisman said. “There’s always more underwater with an iceberg than there is above, so the iceberg is an interesting analogy because we tend to only acknowledge those things we see or that are within our domain of expertise.”

Crisman implements a multidisciplinary approach to her classes as well. McCutchon took Crisman’s Global Sustainability class during the fall 2016 semester.

“It wasn’t so much her lecturing as she had a bunch of guests from different disciplines throughout the University,” McCutchon said. “The class is an overview of all these different topics in sustainability so it really helped me learn how the topic could apply to design as well as any other career I would want to go into.”

Katherine Phillips, a fourth-year College student, is double majoring in Religious Studies and Global Studies with the Environments and Sustainability concentration. For her capstone project, she and other students are working alongside Crisman with Wetlands Watch and the Elizabeth River Project to help the Ingleside neighborhood in Norfolk deal with the threat of sea level rise.

Crisman is her advisor, head of her capstone project and head of her major.

“She is so busy all the time,” Phillips said. “She has so many things on her plate, but she dedicates so much time to each of us. I’ve never felt like there is something I can’t go to her with … She deserves all the accolades she’s getting.” 

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