Capstone: Hands-on Solutions to Real-World Challenges

by |December 10, 2014

Each semester, M.S. in Sustainability Management students must draw on both the practical skills and the analytical knowledge they have gained in order to address crucial sustainability management issues as consultants for a real-world client as part of the Integrative Capstone Workshop. Last week, students made presentations about projects that they are conducting on climate resilience, waste management, sustainable operations, impact investing, and transportation. The clients range from the Staten Island Ferry to the Buenos Aires City Government.

Members of the Impact Investing Capstone Workshop team pause for a photo with their faculty advisor, Jessica Prata.

Members of the Impact Investing Capstone Workshop team pause for a photo with their faculty advisor, Jessica Prata.

“Working with the Ferry Division of New York City’s Department of Transportation challenged my understanding of the practical application of sustainability,” said Tiffany Williams, a member of “The Costs and Benefits of Transitioning the Staten Island Ferry to Liquefied Natural Gas” workshop team. “The experience provided great benefit in driving critical thinking; opening the door for creativity while working within the bounds of the public sector.”

The Capstone Workshop is one of two required courses in the Sustainability Management program, serving as the culminating educational experience for students by enabling them to apply the practical skills and analytical knowledge learned through the Sustainability Management curriculum into an applied project. Students work in teams and undertake special analytic projects as consultants for public and nonprofit agencies, increasing their understanding of the real-world constraints under which sustainability managers operate.

“Working with my capstone group has been one of the most rewarding experiences of the SUMA program,” stated Angeline Kong, a member of the Liniers Cattle Market workshop team. “The sustainability problems that our client was facing were very relevant and significant in scale, and I feel fortunate to have been a part of the process to help the Liniers Cattle Market become more sustainable. Moreover, our team was an amalgamate of professionals from various backgrounds and expertise, which was beneficial in terms of sharing ideas and different perspectives.”

Since the program’s inception in 2011, students have completed more than 40 such projects for clients throughout the world. You can read more about the fall 2014 workshop projects below. 

Project: The Long-Term Sustainability of the Two Bridges Waterfront Community

Client: Two Bridges Neighborhood Council

Advisor: Thomas Abdallah

The Lower East Side was among the hardest hit neighborhoods of Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, especially along the shore, where large campuses of high-rise public and subsidized housing stand on low-elevation fill, barely above sea level. The impact of Hurricane Sandy has many thinking about the long-term sustainability of the waterfront community and the deeper level of planning and design necessary to keep residents in place and safe in this neighborhood. Two Bridges Neighborhood Council serves the residential, commercial, and cultural life of Manhattan’s Lower East Side through community-based programs and strategic partnerships.  The Two Bridges neighborhood is one of Manhattan’s oldest — and newest — neighborhoods. Located on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood’s name refers to the location of its historic core between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. The Two Bridges urban renewal area, including nearly 1,500 units of affordable housing, was redeveloped over the past 40 years.

The workshop team will perform a site analysis, gather relevant data, conduct interviews, and utilize available information to complete the assignment.  This exercise will be meaningful as Two Bridges Neighborhood Council will continue to push to engage the city in dealing effectively with issues of climate change impacts and mitigation, and storm water & storm surge in the neighborhood.

Project: A Near Zero Solid Waste Strategy for Mamaroneck, NY

Client: Mamaroneck Sustainability Collaborative and the Town of Mamaroneck

Advisor: Susanne DesRoches

Currently, solid waste collection, processing and disposal within the Town of Mamaroneck are currently handled by a combination of Town and private waste management services. The Town of Mamaroneck currently collects solid waste from both residential and non-residential properties, including some commercial properties and restaurants. The Town’s costs for this service are funded by local real estate taxes. The Town’s recycling program is aligned with current state and local regulations and includes a recycling program where plastics, glass & metals are co-mingled at pickup and sorted by the selected recycling contractor. Approximately 50% of the solid waste collected by ToM is recycled.

Some components of the Capstone Study will include:

  1. Profile existing solid waste management volumes and costs, with 5-year histories for both the public and private systems (information to be provided by Client; tabulation and formatting by Capstone)
  2. Profile existing policy, regulations and enforcement, identifying “disconnects” and “gaps” (documents provided by Client; analysis and presentation by Capstone)
  3. Profile recent solid waste initiatives, noting tangible benefits achieved by Town actions since 2005 (information provided by Client; tabulation and formatting by Capstone)
  4. Compare Mamaroneck’s present situation with similar-sized/situated communities in US, Japan, Europe (list of comparator communities by Client & Capstone; research & presentation by Capstone)
  5. Assemble Case Studies, worldwide, compiling practical benefits of “best practice” solutions (research & presentation by Capstone)
  6. Explore alternatives and opportunities to reduce solid waste and/or reduce net solid waste cost, based on case studies and brainstorming ideas (alternatives and opportunities by Client and Capstone; estimates of potential impact on volumes and/or costs by Capstone)

Project: Sustainable Operations for the Liniers Cattle Market in Buenos Aires

Client: Unit of Special Projects Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin (UPE-CUMAR), and the Directorate-General for International Relations and Cooperation, Buenos Aires City Government

Advisor: Kizzy Charles Guzman

The Liniers Market occupies an area of 80 acres in Buenos Aires City, and it abuts the Cildañez Stream. The Market is dedicated to sale of live cattle, and it also serves as a price regulation system. Some 100,000 animals are sold on site per month, requiring the entry of an average of 400 trucks per day. The Market accounts for the most important center of livestock transactions in the country, making it a unique center of commerce in the world. The Liniers Market is also one of the main sources of pollution of the Cildañez Stream. The Cildañez Stream crosses through the City of Buenos Aires from the west and flows into the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin in the east. Historically, the Stream was used to dispose of effluents from slaughterhouses. The Stream was 80% piped in late 1980s, although it didn’t receive any contaminated water treatment. Today, it is practically a sewer that carries highly polluted industrial wastewater and sewage from the meat industry.

The key question to be answered by the capstone project is: How to make the Liniers Cattle Market operations sustainable, minimizing the pollution into the Cildañez Stream?

Project: Impact Investing and Institutional Investors: How can pension funds enable a transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy?

Client: Climate, Environment & Development Program, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Instructor: Jessica Prata

There is a need for private capital to fulfill environmental, social and sustainable development aims where governments currently are not able to. A recently developed concept, called Impact Investing, is rising to meet this need. Impacting investing is redefining the universe of investment products that represent a combination of financial return, social return and positive environmental outcomes. Despite the popularity of impact investing in the philanthropic community, institutional investors, such as sovereign wealth funds and pension funds, have been slow to invest in this way. Similarly, development cooperation partners, who can work to leverage private capital for sustainable development have been slow to adopt impact investing models. Research is being conducted to determine if impact investments can outperform conventional investments. This project aims to identify why these investors are hesitant to enter the impact investing space and how existing impact investments can fit into their current/future portfolios.

Project: The Costs and Benefits of Transitioning the Staten Island Ferry to Liquefied Natural Gas

Client: Ferry Division, New York City Department of Transportation

Instructor: George Sarrinikolaou

The Staten Island Ferry, which is owned and operated by the New York City Department of Transportation, is the nation’s largest passenger-only ferry system and serves as the critical mass transit link between Staten Island and Manhattan. The Ferry operates twenty-four hours per day, three hundred and sixty five days per year, carrying approximately 22 million passengers each and every year. To reduce air pollution, the Ferry entered into an agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, under which the Authority funded emissions upgrades to the fleet of Staten Island Ferry vessels to reduce the amount of air pollutants emitted from the ferries as a way to offset the air pollution from harbor dredging. In addition, the Ferry has been burning ultra-low sulfur diesel for about 5 years, making it a relatively clean fleet in terms of air emissions.

Still, there are several regulatory air quality initiatives that have already or will soon come into force. For example, in August 2012 the entire coast of the United States was designated an Environmental Control Area (ECA) in which all vessels operating must burn ultra-low sulfur fuels. In addition, there are staggered Federal EPA tier requirements coming into force during the next decade. These initiatives will have a dramatic impact on the Staten Island Ferry.  The options currently available are (1) vessels will be retrofitted with after-treatment systems, or (2) the fleet will be transitioned to Liquefied Natural Gas. The task of the team is to evaluate the two options and assist in making an informed decision based on a cost benefit analysis.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.  


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