Sustainability on the University of Waterloo Campus:

The Path to the Future!

Imagine yourself sitting on a bench on the University of Waterloo campus. While sitting, you watch a butterfly as it frantically flutters around, searching for a place to rest. You watch it land on a metal railing and notice, for perhaps the first time, that the campus offers few truly natural places for wildlife to dwell. Stark concrete structures dominate the landscape; the smell of carbon monoxide and grease permeates the air; people hustle by, taking little time to notice each other or their surrounding environment. You discover that, everywhere you look, you encounter the work of human hands. What can be done to change this strained situation? How can the campus become more 'naturalized'? The answers lie within the principles of sustainability.

Sustainability implies using natural resources to supply the needs of one generation in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to fulfill those same needs. What we do on the university campus has direct effects on the future and these effects are not isolated to just the campus but can spread to the community or even other parts of the world . We can start having positive effects by reducing our ecological footprint through a better understanding of the origins and disposal methods of our resources and their subsequent long term effects. We must also realize that a balance must be met between the needs of humans with those of the environment. In order to achieve this goal, the present systems need to be analyzed and sustainable changes need to be made.

The idea of sustainability encompasses a variety of domains which include the environment, the economy, and the local and global communities, all of which are equally important and interrelated. A system which ultimately depends on humans for its design, operation, and maintenance will sooner or later fail. Therefore, we must rely on a system that has existed and survived since the beginning of time -- Mother Nature. By looking at systems in nature that work efficiently and effectively together, we can learn how to create links between the different systems on campus so they function more as one natural entity rather than separate components. The systems in need of attention include energy efficiency, resource and waste management, naturalization of the area, and social attitudes.

Greater energy efficiency can be obtained through better building designs which incorporate energy saving mechanisms in all aspects of construction or renovation. Solar panels, co-generation units, and computer-controlled heating, cooling, and lighting systems which automatically shut down when spaces are not occupied, are all excellent methods of energy conservation. In order to reduce outward sprawl and conserve natural areas, buildings must be designed to contain high density populations . Planners must keep the natural landforms in perspective when designing these facilities rather than adapting the land to meet the needs of the buildings.

The University of Waterloo should also consider more sustainable resource and waste management policies. The implementation of grey water recycling systems, timers in showers, and individual hydro bills for residence occupants may prove useful in the attempt to reduce the use and subsequent wasting of resources. Sustainable waste management would require the application of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), with the greatest emphasis on source reduction (i.e. less packaging). It is the food system however, that demands the most attention, as this is where much of the waste occurs. Making composting facilities easily accessible in all food areas will help reduce the output of waste. The return of this food to the land as natural fertilizer will close the loop and will create a link between waste management systems and natural areas.

Increased naturalization on campus also needs to be considered. Environmentally sensitive areas such as Laurel Creek necessitate the protection of buffer zones. Greenways are essential to link natural and human habitats and to allow for greater recreational and transportation opportunities without the increased use of the automobile. Community gardens hosting indigenous species and the presence of perennials as opposed to annuals will both help to naturalize the campus in a way that is compatible with nature.

Although naturalization of the campus and resource management are necessary for the implementation of sustainability, social attitudes must also be redirected to consider the natural environment as being equal to human beings. The concepts of preservation and appreciation of nature and ecological thought must be incorporated into the every day lives of residents. People must realize that the campus is not an isolated system. We can start on the University of Waterloo campus through education. By incorporating environmental thought into all programs, students will become more aware of how they personally affect their campus and their local and global community.

Knowing when the campus has achieved sustainability depends primarily upon achieving the goals or objectives set beforehand. Once these goals are set, the indicators to be sought can be determined. As less waste is produced on campus, resource use becomes more efficient, and the occurrences of natural areas increases, we will know that the campus is on its way towards sustainability. Achieving sustainability is an ongoing process that constantly needs to be monitored. As we monitor our successes and failures, what we learn will help us determine new goals to set and future actions to take.

Sustainability will not be achieved unless there are fundamental changes in the attitudes of the campus population. The predominant belief is that quantity is superior to quality, 'free' means using as much as one desires without hesitation, and 'all you can eat' in residence meal plans means 'all you can waste'. We must change these beliefs and use only what we need, nothing more. On a sustainable campus, the most environmentally benign products and services should be the least expensive. People should be encouraged to make double-sided photocopies or print assignments on recycled paper. Although sustainability is an ongoing process, once implemented, obvious changes in the surrounding environment can easily be discerned.

One day, you return to the same bench. Another butterfly flutters by and perches itself upon one of the many surrounding wildflowers. You thoughtfully study the landscape and embrace the encircling beauty. Greenspaces linking human and wildlife habitats now dominate the campus, providing corridors and pathways through which students leisurely stroll. Structures in harmony with nature prevail. Life on the campus is happier, healthier and more fulfilling, not just to humans, but for all those that dwell there.

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Last updated: February 13, 1995, clr