The Larger Context: Institutions and Sustainable Communities

The 1987 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, presented a model for successful economic development in which the importance of identifying and minimizing the adverse impact of economic development on the environment is addressed. At the heart of the report is its statement defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Sustainable Campus
In the 20 years since that report was published, a fundamental understanding of the interrelationship of economic, environmental, and social sustainability has taken root. Nowhere is that more evident than on today’s college campus. When colleges and universities make development decisions they affect the local and regional environmental fabric; in turn, institutions’ local economic and social enterprises are the social equivalent of buying locally grown produce.

Many colleges and universities are making real inroads toward sustainable strategies, with higher performing buildings and, by extension, more sustainable campuses. These initiatives enable institutions to embody the larger lessons of environmental awareness and responsibility in ways that are both credible and measurable.

While students have played a significant part in driving the demand for these initiatives, the commitment of institutions’ governing boards and senior administrators to strategic goal-setting has established sustainability as a value that can be measured in terms of deliverables. And well they should do so, as university leaders are finding their sustainability policies subject not only to scrutiny from current and potential students, but also from third-party organizations such as the Sustainable Endowments Institute’s annual College Sustainability Report Card.

If environmental awareness and the realization of cost savings brought about the first wave of sustainable awareness to higher education, what comes next?
The Sustainable Community
In no place does Eliel Saarinen’s view of design, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan,” provide a clearer parallel than when discussing sustainability in higher education today. In terms of sustainable practices, it means considering the office or classroom in the context of a building; the building in terms of the campus; and the campus in the context of community.

Following that parallel, it means that sustainability cannot stop at the campus boundary. The larger context of a sustainable campus lies in the priorities and strategies it shares as part of a larger community. Creating partnerships with other local institutions ensures collective support for regional infrastructure that embraces the economic ecosystem. For colleges and universities, this means looking for opportunities to partner with civic, academic, healthcare, and arts institutions, creating non-profit clusters to share strategic plans and environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable strategies.

Such an initiative can mean bringing together institutions that form a region’s economic engine to consider how to create alliances around their shared interests to their collective advantage. Carefully coordinated, this is resoundingly achievable and can benefit a common mission and strategy while strengthening individual institutional identity.

To frame the parameters and direction of such a multi-institutional alliance I have applied the same process I use as an architect to build community and consensus for an individual campus. In acting as a convener and facilitator for such initiatives, I work to bring together such institutional clusters, clarifying and developing areas of common interest, and the communications and implementation strategies that are needed to support them.

This is particularly important for urban campuses, where multiple institutions impact the same neighborhood, with their impact on community resources, from parking and housing to infrastructure. By working collectively, institutions can take steps to reduce their social and environmental footprint much more successfully than could ever be achieved individually. This includes opportunities for coordination with local regulatory and planning agencies around issues such as transit-oriented development, storm water management, and the development of regional open space initiatives such as rails-to-trails and riverways.

It also opens up opportunities to explore shared infrastructure, such as a multi-institutional central utility plant or the joint development of alternative energy sources. Taken further, such an alliance can forge economic partnerships, developing creative clusters that enhance the value and visibility of member institutions, as well as creating positive points of engagement with neighborhood groups and local businesses.

We are in an era where living within our means has replaced a sense of boundless expansion. Taken as opportunity rather than constraint, it calls our attention to the quality of life that our institutions create not only for students, faculty, and staff, but also as part of the wider community.
Thomas D. Kearns, AIA, LEED-AP, is a principal and chairman of the board of the architecture and planning firm of Shepley Bulfinch. He is a leader in the firm’s education practice, with designs that foster community, strengthen identity, and advance the mission of his clients. Central to his work is the integration of economic, social, and environmentally sustainable strategies.