While Richmond residents are flocking to Pony Pasture to enjoy the warm spring weather, Todd Lookingbill is preparing to teach his next class just how the River City came to be, and how the relationship between the people, land, and water will continue to evolve.

In Geography of the James River Watershed, a community-based learning course at the University of Richmond, Lookingbill uses watersheds as a framework to explain geography and the concept of place. But for students in the course, these aren’t just abstract ideas — they’re topics they can explore firsthand, thanks to the University’s location in a watershed city.

“Since the James River watershed flows just a few meters from campus, it’s a really great guiding principle,” says Lookingbill. “We start off defining what a watershed is, and realize that we all live in a watershed. What we do has consequences on the water and we depend on that water.”

“I grew up in Columbia, S.C., where the Saluda River runs through the middle of the city and is a definite presence in the community,” says Mary Brickle, ’13, a triple major in geography, environmental studies and international studies. “I was really interested to see how that relationship played out here in Richmond as well.”

The class begins with a rafting trip through downtown Richmond, which is often many students’ first experience on the water. Throughout the course of the semester, students return to volunteer with the James River Park System, conduct in-stream water sampling, and walk the banks along Pony Pasture — all experiences aimed at cementing academic concepts presented in class.

“They get to see the water level changing, when it’s unrelated to anything that’s happening here — it has to do with things that are happening in the mountains,” Lookingbill says. “They see the color of the river changing and they think about how farming and agriculture upstream affect what’s happening downstream.”

“It was definitely an eye-opener to get an in-depth perspective on both the history and everyday processes of the river,” says Bridget Ward, ’11, an environmental studies major and geography minor. “It's one thing to understand from a PowerPoint how rocks form, species thrive and the river flows, but visiting the river takes the learning experience to a much higher level.”

At the end of the semester, students were asked to combine their hands-on experiences, community involvement, academic readings, and classroom discussions, to decide if the James River Park System should be considered for the National Park Service’s (NPS) National Natural Landmark (NNL) designation. While the class was split on whether the James River was the best representation of a fall-line ecosystem, Lookingbill worked with a group of other students to submit a Proposed National Natural Landmark application. Brickle will lead a presentation to the NPS on June 3 and, if accepted, they will spend the summer completing the more extensive proposal for NNL designation.

“The students evaluated [the James River Park System] relative to the falls of the Potomac, the Rappahannock and a few other alternative areas,” says Lookingbill. “They had to think about what it meant to be in this ecosystem and what the James River offered.”

As Lookingbill prepares for the coming year, he’s looking for ways to expand the course as it becomes part of the Earth Lodge living-learning community. As a full-year course, students will have more time to explore other areas along the James River. “It would be great to move up into the mountains and look at the headwaters, or we could go down to Norfolk to see where the James spits out into the bay,” he says.

Regardless of what course it takes next year, Lookingbill hopes students continue to leave the class with a better understanding of their connection to the river.

“It makes them aware of this great city we live in,” Lookingbill says. “They grow to appreciate their environment and establish a sense of place, of where we are in Richmond, of the value that urban parks have. We read about that, but actually being there when the sun sets, seeing the spiritually that can bring — that really sets in.”