Cities, Sustainability, and Schools – An Educated Guess About an Urban Future

To get a really clear view of the uneasy tension between what makes us feel good and what makes ecological sense, tour residential college campuses. Most likely you will need a car to reach the college of your choice, and once you arrive, you probably will have to hunt for the appropriate parking lot in which to leave your vehicle. In fact, more likely than not you will see multiple parking lots, each targeted for different members of the college’s community. Once parked, you will walk or take a college shuttle bus. The college’s buildings will probably be spread out around the campus, with residence halls separated from the academic buildings. The institution’s academic structures more likely than not will also be dispersed over the campus, too, possibly arranged into clusters or quadrangles. You will need a map to figure out what is what and where to go. The land between and among the buildings will be landscaped, usually with lawns. Reflecting the boom in college construction, if the college has available resources, you will also probably see new structures, often LEED certified to demonstrate the institution’s commitment to sustainability. Taken as a whole, it does not make sense.

David Owen‘s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability makes a compelling argument that cities are the most ecologically sensible places for people to live. In cities people tend to reside in smaller homes (usually apartments), drive less, take public transportation, and walk more. Owen emphasizes that environmentalists and popular culture tend to associate green concerns with either some form of nature with few or no people, or with rural or suburban living. Picture a rain forest, a frozen tundra, a family farm, or a Thoreau shack in the midst of a some dark woods. Yet a city block offers a much better environmental impact than than a leafy suburb with two-family garages and lots of lawns when it comes to housing a thousand people. Owen wants us to have a new mental map of green.Green Metropolis

Owens’ argument appeals to all who prefer to live in cities and eschew the automobile. Automobiles are extraordinarily costly: in terms of production, use, infrastructure and expectations. When designed to limit reliance on cars, urban areas develop strong transportation networks that are energy efficient. Population density increases and so, too, does overall energy and environmental efficiency. All of these add up to healthier living for both those that call the city their home and the planet. The fly in the ointment is that people tend to prefer single family homes and more space, which usually means more spread out living. People like their cars. And peoples’ likes are often reflected in the college campus.

A residential college campus embodies the contradictions between environmentalism and our entropic tendencies. Campuses often offers automobile-free life for residential students, unless they need to be off-campus for internship or work (which, of course, most students will need or want). Residential college campuses are almost always a collection of buildings, too, rather than a tightly integrated aggregation of connected and environmentally thrifty spaces. It is understandable, for colleges grow over time as needs increase and as resources become available. To develop an integrated and urban-like campus would require a significant influx of capital and a long-term commitment to a environmental vision that would run counter to that popular leafy idea. Residential campuses, if Owen is right, are inherently environmentally inefficient.

Environmental concerns remain, however, and institutions for higher education almost always internalize some aspirations of a better, more moral environment. The difficulty, of course, is that they are damned expensive. Complicated matters, environmentally sophisticated thinking, pace Owen, demands a radically different understanding of how a college can and should interact with its broader community. Most college campuses are specialized environments with key points of entry and egress. Transportation is hotly contested, of course, but almost always in terms of parking. They are, conceptually speaking, a space apart. A recent summary of the leading thinking about college campus space planning, C. Carney Strange and James H. Banning’s Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work, is mostly silent about a green and sustainable campus. The book is similarly weak on colleges’ understanding of transportation networks.

An institution of higher education, when it builds a campus, creates a total environment for an academic community. It is environment with a purpose, too, as  there is intentionality in what is built, where it is built, how it is built and why. As such, institutions almost invariably aspire to more when they build. They hope to impress, to foster learning, to reinforce values, and to make statements. Environmental awareness and sustainability are values that virtually all higher education institutions endorse. It is very difficult to create an environmentally efficient campus. A LEED-certified library or residence hall is much easier, which is why we see so many of them on leafy, suburban college campuses.

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