Universities Play Role in Greening Beyond Environment


There is an increasing interest worldwide in  developing  and implementing best practice  in  the environmental design and performance of  buildings..  While this is clearly evident in the commercial and  residential markets,  less known is the fact that there has also been a significant investment in sustainable infrastructure within the higher education/university sector and that many institutions have taken the opportunity to integrate  elements of  these projects into their academic function, thus creating designs that educate the community in sustainability , while also reducing the environmental impacts of the campus activities.

Does this approach offer anything to the broader society?


Universities : greening beyond environment

The tertiary sector has been a strong driver for societal change, not only through education and research, but also by the example it sets as major institutions at the centre of larger communities.   Today, many schools now see the latter as important demonstration of corporate citizenship and over time, this has evolved to include establishing curricula and campus practices that promote and improve environmental sustainability.

At an institutional level, there is often a wide variety of initiatives designed to improve the campus environmental footprint, with many driven from the bottom up by staff and students (e.g. awareness programs, waste reduction initiatives, cycle to work or switch off programs), while  others are major corporate projects, such as the construction of buildings using environmental sustainable design standards, such as LEED, GreenMark, GreenStar or Casbee.


Universities’ strategic approaches

Most universities today have established policies and associated  action plans to improve their environmental footprint, while many others have also chosen to make a high profile public commitment by becoming signatories to international charters like the Talloires and Sapporo declarations.

Some institutions have used their membership of existing collaborative groups to  further their environmental goals. For example, the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), with Asian regional members : Peking University, University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore and Australian National University,   has not only  established related academic research groups looking at issues like the development of sustainable cities (i.e. designing low carbon cities, developing sustainable ecosystems and food flows), it also actively supports its members in exchanging information and experiences in the development of environmentally sustainable practices, on projects ranging from building and campus design and operation, through to transport management and bio diversity.

A number of Universities have also taken the further step of integrating building and landscape design and operations with learning, to create an “educational” infrastructure that establishes the campus as classroom and/or a living laboratory. The value of this approach is perfectly expressed by David Orr, professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, when he comments that “… buildings have their own hidden curriculum that teaches as effectively as any course taught in them”. Oberlin College has put this sentiment into practice with its construction of Adam Joseph Lewis Centre for Environmental Studies – a living laboratory, where the occupants were involved in the design from the idea stage, are  provided real time information about  building performance  by smart infrastructure and continue to be involved in the operations and enhancements as  the building operations are extended.

Of course, the idea of educational architecture or infrastructure is not new. However, the approach being adopted by some universities goes beyond  innovative structural design to that of developing an  integrated and holistic environment, where communities live and work in precincts that reinforce sustainability values. Examples include, Tongji University in China which has created  an award winning living laboratory on their campus and the UTown, the new campus  at the National University of Singapore, that was one of the first two projects to be certified under the BCA Green Mark for Districts Scheme.

Further south in the Asia Pacific region, the Australian National University is in the process of establishing its campus as a classroom on the back of initiatives which include engineered sustainability (in building design and operations), as well as community interaction with the landscape and built infrastructure. An example of this is a recent major project called Education Precincts for the Future, where the community can see and interact with sustainable infrastructure (i.e. PV systems, water sensitive urban design, water recycling and storm water capture) in a way that builds knowledge and awareness about the impact of individual and institutional behaviour.

Sharing the experience that comes with these projects will be critical in broadening and innovating the approach to environmental sustainability within the sector. To that end, from a regional perspective, groups  such as Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability and China Green Campus Network, which have been established to promote and support sustainability initiatives, will play an important role in information transfer, as will the International Sustainable Campuses Network (ISCN), which was  established  several years ago, to provide a global forum to “exchange information, ideas and best practice for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability into teaching and research “. This group is particularly focused on reinforcing the importance of immediate and strategic action to drive change within the sector and beyond, and uses its annual conferences as a platform for creating institutional engagement. (This year’s ISCN conference will be held  in June at the National University of Singapore, with a theme “The Future is Now”.)

Visit www.international-sustainable-campus-network.org for more information.


What it all eventually means…

The initiatives being implemented by Universities  to integrate and thus broaden the impact of their environmental programs, not only provide the opportunity for greater environmental success at institutional level but also allows the operational to become part of the institution’s larger academic mission.  That, in turn, can provide both an example and  knowledge  to the corporate sector about alternative strategic approaches to achieving its sustainability goals in the future. Rather than simply automating good sustainable practice in systems buried within buildings or industrial parks, they could use future designs to educate their staffs – and broader communities – in good environmental practices while at the same time reinforcing sustainability as a corporate value. This holistic approach to sustainable design is one that will feed change to create an informed and environmentally aware society.




This post is an exclusive contribution by the author, Bart Meehan.

Bart Meehan retired as Associate Director, Facilities and Services at The Australian National University in 2012. In that role he had executive responsibility for a wide range of campus operational activities, including the implementation of the University Environmental Management Plan. Bart is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

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