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Chico State

Painting a New Picture for South Campus

A group of students walk around in the South Campus Neighborhood.
Photos courtesy of the Institute of Sustainable Development at Chico State.

California State University, Chico is a gem within the 23-campus CSU system. Our commitment to academic excellence, sustainability, diversity, and civic engagement is second to none. Another strength that sets us apart from many institutions of higher learning is our campus is located in the true core of our city.

It takes mere steps to transition from campus to city streets and into the surrounding neighborhoods, where our students, faculty and staff live, work, volunteer and recreate. Representing so many threads within the tapestry of this community, Chico State strives to be an engaged and collaborative neighbor.

A recent partnership with the city of Chico has taken our relationship to a new level. The South Campus Neighborhood Project is an award-winning neighborhood improvement planning effort coordinated by the Institute for Sustainable Development’s Resilient Cities Initiative at Chico State and the city’s Public Works Department. It stands with two dozen other universities in following a successful model established by the University of Oregon in 2009, and in a way that reflects our own values and priorities.

Students in safety vests use a handheld devices to measure lighting.
Students measure the volume of light available at night in the south campus neighborhood project. Lighting is one of many areas targeted in their neighborhood plan and streets concepts.

At its heart, the project targets the public rights-of-way in the South Campus neighborhood, which runs between Second and Ninth streets and Orange and Salem streets. Laid out by John Bidwell in the 1860s, it is Chico’s oldest residential neighborhood and now home to not only our University students but small businesses, restaurants, bars, churches, community organizations, a school, a railway station and a transit center.

Due to its location, population and mixed uses, the neighborhood certainly has a unique set of circumstances and challenges, but opportunities, too. That sense of promise is what drives our students and faculty in this unprecedented cross-disciplinary collaboration with our city partners.

Together, we share one vision: To see the south campus neighborhood improved in ways that enhance the quality of living there now and well into the future.

The idea began in 2015. With the City Council’s unanimous support, a three-year agreement with the Institute of Sustainable Development and the city began in 2016. Since then, more than 500 students across eight academic departments have put in more than 10,000 hours of work. Participating courses include the disciplines of history, biology, engineering, geography, geosciences, health, anthropology and English.

Students and faculty have focused on neighborhood history and character, the urban forest, transportation, street lighting and criminal activity. The neighborhood improvement plan they develop will focus on complete streets and public works concepts that enhance public health and safety, quality of life, sense of place, environmental sustainability, and the social good, leveraging the brain trust of the University with the city’s resources to initiate change on pressing community issues.

We have just entered the third year of this three-year project. Much of the hard work has been done, as our students have spent hours after dark measuring lumens along dark sidewalks, wrapping measuring tape around trees to study the urban forest and implementing makeshift bike lanes. And from that have emerged concepts including solar roadways, drought-resistant green spaces and solar street lamps, among many others.

Students are putting theory into practice with this hands-on research. Led by interdisciplinary faculty research experts, they are connecting with decision makers in their fields of study and developing into the next generation of workforce professionals and leaders.

At one visit, Public Works Director and 2009 alum Brendan Ottoboni told the students how he had been in their seats—literally, in the same classroom—a decade earlier and had transformed his interest and knowledge in engineering into his current professional role. I have no doubt today’s students will one day have similar stories to share.

The feedback from students has been nothing short of inspirational.

“I felt more connected to the community than I ever have in my five years as a Chico State student. I think it’s great to include students in the community while getting them out in the field learning data collection skills. Any lab class should try to make this happen,” said one geosciences student participant.

Another student in geography called it “the real deal, as good an experience as my time in college has provided. The opportunity to put my skills learned in the classroom to use on a real-world project right here in my own community has been an incredible experience that will help define my time in Chico.”

As more courses and students jump into this project this spring, I’m eager to watch their progress. This work gives them the chance to leave their mark on our city in an exceptional manner, shaping its future for the better, and impacting generations of students and citizens for decades to come.

We want your input, too. The website for the South Neighborhood Improvement Project includes an interactive map where you can add your points of praise or concern in the relevant categories. I urge you to join our students in making your voices heard and shaping the future of this signature neighborhood.

For more details on the project, its progress and ways to be involved, visit

Together, we will transform tomorrow!

Gayle E Hutchinson - signature