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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

Photo by Heather Clark

Dilmun Hill: Developing an Environmental Learning Center at Cornell University

Heather Clark

This is the story of how two undergraduate students, myself, an Environmental Science and Community Planning major, and Richard Kennedy, a Landscape Architecture major, initiated a community-based planning process to expand Dilmun Hill, Cornell University"s 11-acre student-run organic farm, into an interdisciplinary environmental learning center.

The vision for Dilmun Hill was to create a hands-on center where students could learn what sustainability means by creating a landscape complete with fruit trees, vineyards, and gardens. Where energy is harnessed from sun and wind, and waste is turned into a resource. A place where a glistening irrigation pond, colorful windmills, solar panels, sculpture among trees, and classrooms with living roofs offer a stage for those of differing backgrounds and perspectives to learn collaboratively.

The plans for Dilmun Hill were developed during the summer and fall of 1999 through a participatory process that involved over forty students, both undergrads and grads; 20 plus faculty; staff from diverse backgrounds; and 20 representatives from eight of the City of Ithaca's community groups. What follows here is the story of our collective Vision Planning Process, which has changed our philosophy of environmental education.

Dilmun Hill Student Farm History

Before the Vision Plan was developed, Dilmun Hill Student Farm already had a three-year history. In 1996 the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, an organization of Cornell students, faculty, and staff, founded Dilmun Hill to give students field experience in organic agriculture. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences allocated the group two acres of University property a few blocks from the main campus. As a largely extracurricular activity, students, community volunteers, and one or two paid student farm managers began cultivating a market garden on the property. They named it Dilmun Hill after the Sumerian phrase for the Garden of Eden. Although input continued to be given by faculty and community members, the group decided to leave the majority of the decision making to students. This enhanced the educational experience as students learned how to choose seeds, plant, prevent and remedy erosion and pest problems, develop marketing strategies, and collaborate as a group.

Students held weekly meetings, special events, and work sessions at the farm. Through grants and alliances within the university, the students gradually acquired more support, funding, and land. By the summer of 1999, Dilmun Hill property had grown to 11-acres. There were two paid student summer farm managers and one paid part-time staff person. Students gave farm tours to campus classes and community groups. Farm managers offered a children's summer program. University courses used the farm for agricultural research, and students donated crops to local food pantries and sold produce at its farm stand in the center of campus.

Falling in Love with Dilmun Hill

I first visited Dilmun Hill on a tour during my junior year at Cornell. While the tour focused on the fields, what captured my interest was the turn-of-the century barn and a hope expressed by students to convert the barn someday into a "green" building, remodeled in an environmentally-responsible way for student housing.

A few months later in the middle of winter, I returned to visit the farm with fellow student Richard Kennedy, who also had a passion for green building. We spent a good half-hour wandering through the snow looking at the cream barn with a nondescript exterior. Since all the doors were locked, we hoisted ourselves onto the back roof, climbed in through a sliding window, and immediately fell in love with the special space inside. We climbed onto a loft that looked over two other lofts with golden wood floors and thick beams. We moved down stairs and up ladders, discovering hay shoots, trap doors, secret rooms, and lofts—all lit by delicate bands of winter sunlight, coming in through a few glass windows and cracks in the walls.

Possibilities for Sustainability

It was on this first visit that we began to imagine that the barn could become a sustainable living center that would serve as student housing and a green building model for the community. A greenhouse on the extensive south side could provide passive solar heating in cool months, a warm place to grow cold-tolerant plants like lettuce and kale, and even space to dry laundry. We thought about where to install solar panels and windmills to run the barn's energy-efficient appliances. Vegetables could be stored in a root cellar that would be cooled by the north wall of the barn's submerged first floor. The barn's enormous roof could be used to collect rainwater for the gardens. A separate graywater system would also water the garden by using wetland plants to purify wastewater from the sinks and showers. Composting toilets would produce a nutrient-rich soil amendment for ornamental plants throughout the site.

There would need to be rooms for lectures, student bedrooms, a kitchen, and so on, all of which could be built from wood salvaged from university construction projects. We could also experiment with natural building methods, such as strawbale construction, which uses straw and mud to create durable walls of high insulative value. All of these techniques would allow us to make airy, beautiful spaces to sit, learn, study, and sleep, and at the same time provide a valuable learning experience for those who visit and participate in construction.

The first steps

To get the transformation process started, we held meetings in the spring of 1999 with students interested in green building, most of whom had never been involved with Dilmun Hill. Soon following, at a Dilmun Hill meeting, our group proposed that we start on the effort of creating the Sustainable Living Center. Dilmun Hill students encouraged the project.

The next step was gaining administrative support. We wrote a proposal describing how the Sustainable Living Center could fit into the organic farm program. We invited faculty to the barn for tours and discussions. We encouraged students in architecture and planning classes to use the barn as the subject for research projects. We also approached college deans with our proposal. In the process, Dilmun Hill's program received full rights to the barn.

The idea for a master plan

At the end of spring semester, Rich and I received campus funding to work on the project through the summer. The faculty advisor for Dilmun Hill, Professor Ian Merwin, and Landscape Architecture Professor Paula Horrigan, encouraged us to view the Sustainable Living Center in the context of the entire 11-acre site and produce a long-term master plan. Enthusiastic about this concept, we began to consider how Dilmun Hill could evolve into an interdisciplinary comprehensive environmental learning center, not simply a place with a "green" building and an organic garden.

At this point, students had already left campus for the summer, so Rich and I never had a chance to discuss the master plan concept with the entire group. However, to prepare for a planning process with other students in the fall, we researched precedents at other universities; compiled a history of the site; created ecological analysis maps to show current site conditions, including slope, soil, and surface water flow; and evaluated physical issues, such as accessibility, pests, land-use, and the existing built environment. We also documented the program's successes and failures in terms of student participation, organization, projects, and outreach; and held interviews and advisory sessions with faculty, staff, community members, and student experts who advised us on everything from where to build an irrigation pond to whether the barn was structurally sound.

We also received Cornell University funding to visit environmental learning centers in California, similar to what we were hoping to achieve at Dilmun Hill: the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at the University of California, Pomona; the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology at Humboldt State University; the Student Farm at the University of California, Davis; and the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Wish List Day: A Participatory Process

In late summer, together with the student farm managers, Marisa Alcorta and Jennifer Fiskin, we organized the first event of the Vision Planning Process, a three-hour Wish List Day. With approximately 20 representatives from eight of Ithaca's community groups attending, we gave a tour of the farm, sharing the history, current uses of the site, and issues discovered from research. Through facilitated discussion, representatives expressed how Dilmun Hill would need to grow for their groups to use it as a resource for environmental education.

On this sunny summer day, the future for Dilmun Hill began to take shape. Participants recommended that we create gardens at the entrance to Dilmun Hill to welcome the public and plant a separate children's garden with elements that would complement other gardens in the City of Ithaca. It was also suggested that interpretive signage be made to describe different parts of the site. One person suggested, for example, that an exhibit explain that compost is not just dirt, but a nutrient-rich soil amendment created from food scraps and plant debris.

The ideas were fresh and exciting, and dealt as well with practical issues, such as where the school bus drop-off should be or, as a wise 12 year-old pointed out, how to mark a path system to direct visitors through the site. Ideas from this meeting and later ones were well documented in written and visual formats, and shared with those attending future meetings through multiple modes that included e-mail, informational packets, and sketches.

Involving the Cornell community

When school started again in the fall, Rich and I told the students at the first Dilmun Hill meeting about our summer work and the idea for developing a master plan. We discovered that some students disagreed with the basic concept. Some saw the master plan as limiting the freedom and flexibility of future students. Others felt that Rich and I would be making all the decisions. Still others just wanted to do the physical work and avoid meetings as much as possible.

After many discussions, we learned that most of the disagreement arose because students had not been involved in the initial decision to create the master plan, and because Rich and I had poorly conveyed the intention of the plan and the planning process. The turning point in one of these discussions came when a student suggested that the master plan be renamed Vision Plan to imply that it was not set in stone, but rather a creative collaborative. Suddenly the students became excited. From this point forward, although Rich and I did the grunt work in terms of writing, researching, drawing, and planning events, major decisions were made as a group. I should note that a few students still refused to participate.

Mural as a prelude to the vision

To set the creative tone for the Vision Planning Process, students made a mural of Dilmun Hill in the center of campus. Everyone brought something to add to the mural: corn husks, fabric scraps, pine cones, leaves, sticks, even paint made by one student from the black walnut tree in front of the barn. The mural grew as Dilmun Hill's fields were shown in yellow and blue, accented with patterned fabrics Acorn caps represented sheep that grazed within fences suggested with sticks. And, illustrated with yarn hair and cloth clothes, were students running around the fields doing cartwheels, leading tours, and planting. Someone was depicted fishing on the creek next to the farm; another was biking on a path through leaves and pinecones. A rising sun shone in the background, and the cream-colored barn was given a hot pink fabric roof.

While working on the mural, we talked about how much we loved Dilmun Hill (and didn't), told onlookers about upcoming events, and generally had a really good time. This fun experience made it easier to work as a group during later meetings. The next day, and in months following, we held brainstorming sessions that were publicized using letters, flyers, and e-mails to reach students, faculty, staff, and community members. We especially targeted those disciplines underrepresented at Dilmun Hill, such as engineering, architecture, art, education, and even economics.

Photo by Heather Clark

Vision Day

Perhaps the most successful event in our planning process was Vision Day, a daylong design charrette or brainstorming session held early in the semester, the day after we made the mural. It started with a tour, during which participants recorded ideas on their own small map of the site. At the end of the tour everyone wrote one or two of the most important issues in color on a larger, wall-sized map, which served as a stimulus for discussion.

Three facilitated brainstorming sessions followed: Land, Gardens, Crops; the Barn and the Built Environment; and Research, Student Involvement, and the Community. Ideas were again recorded on large notepads and maps of the site. We conceived theme gardens with sculptures made from reused materials; water catchment systems that would store water from surrounding roofs for use in the garden; and season-extending greenhouses where food could be grown in cool months by renewable energy sources. We would teach, utilizing the creek that bordered our site, and with the graywater system that we would build for our Sustainable Living Center. We would learn within our structures as well as from their design, such as an earthen roof classroom that tucked into a hill, taking advantage of the earth's natural insulating properties to moderate summer and winter temperature changes.

Following Vision Day, concepts were compiled into both written and visual formats and meetings were held (primarily attended by students), where we developed and revised the Vision Plan. We also continued our research. For example, on Vision Day people decided they wanted to cultivate the land on top of the hill. So we researched how to orient the rows with the slope to prevent erosion and calculated the dimensions of the rows to accommodate the tractor's turning radius.

At the end of December, the finished Vision Plan, complete with photos, maps, and drawings, was presented to faculty and administrators. In the spring of 2000, as I wrote a detailed report documenting the research, planning, and development process, including the reasoning behind the Vision Plan, students began implementation, starting with planting the Exploration Garden at the entrance to Dilmun Hill.

Process as learning experience

In retrospect, it was the Vision Planning process itself, not the final outcome, that was the real education. The process required us as a community to consider sustainability. In so doing, we had to think of the site as a system where all things are interconnected, rather than simply a list of "green" elements without consideration of context, which was where we started. The process also made us confront the tension between utopia and reality, apparent not only from the site's physical constraints, but also from the conflicts during the decision-making process itself.

In addition we gave considerable attention to how we would implement the plan. The experience of having toured similar projects at other universities proved valuable for our decision-making process.

For example, at the Center for Regenerative Studies, most of its design and construction was completed by professionals, and students had only minor input. Thus, students did not learn from the building stage, and a few even complained they did not even understand how the Center worked. Furthermore, because the Center is "finished," students have little on-going opportunity to contribute to its evolution. Now that the Center for Regenerative Studies is in operation, paid staff and faculty make most of the decisions.

On the other hand, the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT), a demonstration home, is run by three student co-directors who live at CCAT and additional paid student staff and volunteers. Although the students receive some direction from the CCAT steering committee, made up of former co-directors, faculty, staff, and students, the co-directors manage day-to-day operations and supervise student workers and projects. Since its inception, students have designed, built, and made modifications on almost all projects on site, including retrofitting the house with solar panels, a greenhouse, graywater system, windmill, and organic gardens. Even when we visited, almost thirty years after CCAT was founded, a student was installing a window in the bathroom to increase natural lighting and alleviate a mildew problem. Still others were developing a biodiesel fuel generator that produces fuel from reclaimed oil from campus dining halls.

Photo by Heather Clark

Balancing Self-Direction and Learning Opportunities

We wanted to ensure that there would be a balance of student self-direction and learning opportunities, during every phase of Dilmun Hill's development. Together with a dean in charge of facilities, as well as staff from the Department Utilities, we brainstormed ways that students could be involved in the design and construction of the Sustainable Living Center and other elements of the site. It was our hope that the architect hired for the renovation would involve students during the design process, perhaps as part of an interdisciplinary course. Similarly, students would have an opportunity to participate in the construction process alongside trained professionals.

To optimize students' learning experience, Professor Merwin is also working with the university to hire a full time organic agriculture faculty member, who will hold summer courses in organic farming at Dilmun Hill and serve as an advisor to help facilitate the Vision Plan. I think similarly, that an architecture or engineering professor should also be hired to help students pursue building projects on site and provide continuity from year to year for large projects like the Sustainable Living Center. Such positions will fill a gap at Cornell, because there are no professors who focus on organic agriculture or environmentally-responsible building. Although students can still be self-directed, faculty can serve as a valuable resource to students as they start to execute different parts of the Vision Plan. An endowment is being sought to fund the agriculture faculty position and improvements to the site.

Leaving Room for Future Ideas

Students are now implementing different parts of the Vision Plan as they become interested in it. Hopefully, they will continue to pass down the Vision Plan and participate in its evolution.

To leave plenty of room for innovative learning opportunities of future students, the plan was intended to only loosely articulate Dilmun Hill's future. The plan as we finalized it graphically depicts recommended locations of various activities, with reasoning given for each decision. For example, the Four Season Cropping Area was located close to the barn where students will live, so that they won't have to walk far to maintain and harvest produce, especially when snow is on the ground. The Four Season Cropping Area is also buffered from the shade of the wildlife area by an open meadow. However, students will have to figure out on their own how to develop each part of the plan (or develop new elements altogether).

Hopefully as students implement projects, they will benefit from the research and energy that went into looking at Dilmun Hill as a whole system. Students will continue to have the opportunity to develop community outreach programs in tandem with site elements. They will also learn through management and collaboration.

Those of us involved in the Vision Planning process learned to look at Dilmun Hill's eleven acres within the context of Cornell University, the City of Ithaca, the ecosystem, and local history to see how pieces of the puzzle work together. We believe we have found ways for the farm to evolve into a more comprehensive model for learning about ecological sustainability.

The Vision Planning Process was about learning through doing. The Vision Plan is us, as students, saying that we want to take an active role in our environmental education and, as a complement to our classroom experience, solve real environmental problems. In the process of creating a vision, we developed a framework for how we could accomplish those goals, and even better, challenged ourselves to work together, be creative, and experiment with what it takes to make a sustainable world.


This past summer, one year since graduating and a year and a half after presenting the Vision Plan, Dilmun Hill pulled me back for a visit. Two new hand-crafted wooden signs welcomed me to Dilmun Hill. Behind them was a new kiosk with the Vision Plan, set behind glass, and a chalkboard with daily chores. The Exploration Garden was more beautiful than I had imagined, with winding paths and juicy strawberries between wildflowers. I walked from place to place with a friend—the drawing had become alive!

Since I left, additional funding was received, enabling Dilmun Hill to hire three full-time and one part-time student farm managers. One devoted almost all her time to planting the Exploration Garden. The Mechanized Garden was cultivated and adopted as a research project to study the effects of herbicides used previously on the site. New research has also focused on developing the agroforestry plots and on organic weed management. New paths have been constructed to make the site easier for visitors to navigate, and an open house was held with over one hundred attendees. As for the Sustainable Living Center, an interior design course developed a program for its renovation during the Vision Planning process, and more recently a root cellar was constructed in its lowest level.

Despite its successes, Dilmun Hill continues to struggle to attract students from underrepresented disciplines, and to find a balance between student self-direction and the need for long-term commitment to projects requiring more than the four years that students attend school. But these challenges and the dynamism of Dilmun Hill make it the best learning environment I have encountered. I am sincerely amazed by this place—it has a part of each of our hearts.

The Vision Plan

The Exploration Garden, at the main entrance to Dilmun Hill, greets visitors and introduces them to agriculture, ecology, and the interdisciplinary nature of environmental issues. Paths wind through the garden's edible landscape, past examples of permaculture techniques, such as companion planting and native vegetation. For example, marigolds and tomatoes might be cultivated together, because marigolds naturally repel insects that attack tomatoes. Plants native to New York, such as persimmons and apples, are naturally acclimated to local conditions and require less maintenance and resources (e.g. water) than non-natives.

Eco-inventions throughout the garden include a solar cooker and a rainwater catchment system that collects and stores rain from roofs for use in the garden. Sculptures crafted by art students from found or recycled materials are also an integral part of the garden, as are displays of the history of the area and the old farmhouse that once stood here.

Adjacent to the Exploration Garden, the Sustainable Living Center serves as student housing, lecture hall, and a demonstration of green architecture. Kitchen herb gardens, a composting education area, and a children's garden surround the barn. In back of the Sustainable Living Center, a four-season cropping area with greenhouses and other season-extending technologies enables students to grow fresh produce during most of the year.

Up the hill are agroforestry plots, windmills, orchards, and vineyards. In the mechanized plot students are trained in organic agriculture and the use of tractors and other farm machines. In the original Dilmun Hill two-acre Market Garden, students continue to learn hand-tool techniques, such as double digging—a method of preparing more productive vegetable beds by deeply aerating the soil and adding nutrient-rich compost.

The Living Roof Classroom, with an earthen roof, connects the production area on top of the hill and the educational demonstration area around the Sustainable Living Center.

Heather Clark is currently State Program Representative for Rebuild New York's Communities, in Albany, New York.

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