Tara Aubuchon graduated from WashU in 2007 with a Bachelors of Arts in Environmental Studies and a minor in Architecture. After graduating from MIT with a master degree in city planning; she worked for Vertegy and for the Cambridge Housing Authority, before becoming the Vacancy Coordinator for the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis (CBN).
Mikaela Gatewood, an intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Tara Aubuchon to learn more about her professional career and gain further insight into how WashU has helped bring them to where she is today.
How did your years at WashU prepare you for a career in sustainability?
At the time, there wasn’t a clear degree or set of courses for sustainability at WashU, but what I loved about the environmental studies major was the flexibility it offered and its interdisciplinary nature. I was able to take courses in architecture, engineering, anthropology, economics and other departments to piece together knowledge in green building, the social implications of environmental justice and how economic structures impact our society.
What brought you to work for CBN, what motivated you to work for them?
I moved back to St. Louis in 2017 and learned about the work of CBN and the Vacancy Collaborative through professional networking and informational interviewing. During my time away from St. Louis, CBN has emerged as a leader in community development and facilitating difficult conversations at shared tables across the region. I’ve always been in roles that require me to listen to and support diverse perspectives, bridging silos and building capacity for change. It seemed like a perfect fit for my skills and my interest in urban planning and strong neighborhoods.
What is CBN? What is the Vacancy Collaborative?
CBN is a coalition of over 70 community building organizations, including community-based nonprofits, lenders, private developers, philanthropic organizations, and government actors. CBN believes that strong, inclusive communities are the building blocks for a better St. Louis, and exists to empower, connect, and celebrate the regional and neighborhood leaders that make these places possible. CBN gathers community leaders of all backgrounds to build engaged and equitable neighborhoods. One way they do this is through facilitation of several coalitions, one of which is the Vacancy Collaborative.
The Vacancy Collaborative (VC) launched in 2018 after several years of effort and planning. The VC is a coalition of partners committed to the reduction of vacant property as a top priority in St. Louis. The VC is not a stand-alone entity, but a coalition of community representatives, private and non-profit stakeholders, and City agencies. The VC helps to coordinate existing vacancy efforts under one umbrella and encourages the public and private sectors to work together toward solutions in a comprehensive and coordinated way.
Can you talk about why vacancy is such a big issue?
Since our peak population in 1950, St. Louis City has lost over 60% of its population. There are over 25,000 vacant properties in the City, and more than 40% of the City’s census tracts have vacancy rates higher than 20% with most of them concentrated in North St. Louis. Residents in these neighborhoods live with overgrown lots and vacant buildings that contribute to disinvestment, high rates of poverty, increased crime, decreased property values, and health and public safety risks. These properties strain City resources and affect the prosperity of the entire region. These public safety risks (including demolition safety) are an environmental concern.
Vacancy is also a symptom of a larger problem. Historic sprawl (caused by many factors, including segregation, targeted public policy that deprived neighborhoods of investment, the rise of the subsidized highway system and suburbs) has created a region that is spread out and automobile dependent. Our development patterns remove important farmland and flood plain and put pressure on our infrastructure and habitat. By addressing vacancy, we can rebuild dense urban neighborhoods that are close to job centers and transportation and improve quality of life for residents already living in these neighborhoods.
How would you like to see CBN and your position as Vacancy Coordinator grow in the future?
I’m hoping to see the Vacancy Collaborative build stronger connections between public and private sectors, community and government. We have so many challenges as a City, but also so many positive efforts happening that are making a difference, empowering residents, and building trust across partners. I’d like to see these efforts supported and expanded.
How can students get involved in organizations like CBN?
CBN often hosts practicum students or interns to work on different initiatives such as coalition building, the organizational capacity of our members, research and more. We also welcome students who are interested in writing case studies or editorials on topics in the community development field. Finally, we have a number of CBN events that we can use volunteer support for. Don’t hesitate to connect!
What is your advice for WashU students interested in pursuing careers in sustainability?
Sustainability is a broad field and you can approach it from so many different angles. It’s important to explore different courses and topics throughout your time at Wash U, but make sure to be looking for ways you can apply your passion in sustainability to a specific arena (e.g. policy, design, economics, etc.) otherwise it’s easy to get lost. That doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind throughout the course of your career. In fact, I believe it’s inevitable for most of us! I started in green building, moved into affordable housing and now work in community development, but I’ve approached each transition with a goal in mind.
I also encourage students interested in sustainability to remember that it’s not just about environmental sustainability but a focus on social and economic sustainability is necessary for our efforts to be truly effective.
Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group–an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.