Sustainability on Campus

The University of Waterloo possesses by far the most bounteous, innovative and completely renewable resource. Students have the potential to mould our educational institution into a paradigm of sustainability. It is the students who strive for higher learning but are often overlooked and underestimated. We, the student body, are the resource of the future and therefore must be granted the power to change our present situation. Before UW can attempt major system modifications, the hierarchy of administration must work with the students to establish common goals. There exists a need for the integration of ideas concerning long-term planning in place of short term benefits. As members of the UW community, we share the responsibility of incorporating sustainable development tactics into all facets of decision making. Through co-operation and stewardship, UW may one day become a recognised model of a sustainably functioning institution.

Sustainability requires a holistic approach to all human activities that ensures maintenance of social and ecological systems. In this way, the needs of the present can be sufficiently met without sacrificing the integrity of future generations.[1] Sustainability is a process, not a state, it cannot be fully or finally achieved. This process is a method of planning, not a goal which can be ultimately reached. Perhaps the easiest way to examine an institution such as a university is to concentrate on those activities which are not sustainable. In essence, this is the approach taken by WATgreen - an initiative for students, faculty and staff to transform the campus into a sustainable ecosystem.

The university must create a set of common goals which would be expressed through policies, regulations and guidelines. This would ensure that existing and new members of the UW community understand the criteria which they are expected to meet on all projects, plans and even before start-up on the campus. Just like the interconnections of a natural ecosystem, all decisions made affect the university as a whole. However, a set of mandatory regulations would act as a checklist and therefore provide continuity. These regulations are also a preventative measure, avoiding and predicting problems or impacts of university actions, plans and policies. In this way, there would be a certain level of assurance that a continual, common focus remains on long term goals.

The University would also have it's own Environmental Assessment Round Table which would assess the impacts, benefits and need for UW policies, plans and projects. This round Table must include representatives of the entire University community including students, staff and faculty. It is essential to sustainability that all members of our community are treated fairly and feel that they have the power to make a difference. Students must also have more say in where their money is going. This includes money they spend on tuition, housing and endowment funds. The students must feel that they are an important part of the UW sustainable system. Empowerment, access to information and funding are essential to the concept of sustainable planning and development on the UW campus.

Another important aspect to address is the idea of UW's ecological footprint. Self-reliance is a goal that reflects sustainability through decreasing the level of imports while benefiting the local economy. The University of Waterloo could work with the Kitchener-Waterloo Region in order to minimize the negative environmental impact of the University upon the surrounding community.

In terms of the physical environment, UW could be renaturalising the campus and making better use of space. Greenways are of utmost importance for the protection of watersheds but they include more than perfectly manicured lawns. Trees and organic gardening methods are not only aesthetically pleasing but they require minimal maintenance and eliminate the need for pesticides. The University is the proprietor of empty land behind the Columbia Lake Townhouses. This land could be used for subsistence farming. Environmental Studies students could cultivate the land as part of agriculture or organic studies.

In planning for a more sustainable campus, pollution control measures need to be established and enforced. The University of Waterloo is relatively small in comparison to much of the urban sprawl seen throughout Ontario. Therefore, eliminating cars on campus is not a far fetched idea. More foot paths could be introduced as well as underground tunnels for use in bad weather. Ring Road could be taken out all together or replaced with a more permeable surface, such as cobblestone, for service vehicles and student shuttle buses.

Grey water systems are another method of reducing UW's impact on the natural environment. Grey water systems greatly reduce water consumption through the recycling of water for toilets or watering gardens. Although the proposal for a closed loop system with on campus water treatment was denied, experimentation with new ideas such as on site wetland sewage treatment, could prove successful. Research into environmentally sound technologies, inventions and innovations would be promoted. Such research projects would provide interested students with opportunities to study in the field of environmental science while benefiting the University itself.

Education and information are essential to the sustainability of any community. It is important that all members of UW have access to computers and the 'information highway.' It is also essential that every faculty and department incorporate environmental studies into their field of expertise and learning. Students, the University's greatest resource, must learn to apply their knowledge, regardless of what field they are in, in a manner which minimises negative environmental impacts and promotes the concept of sustainable development. WATgreen projects should be a requirement in all faculties at the University. A focus on volunteer work both on campus and within the greater community will promote a sense of belonging, self-worth and empowerment in the members of the University of Waterloo family.

Access to the University itself is also important in a sustainable campus. A sustainable community must promote cultural diversity. Unless students receive funding to attend UW, only the those who can afford it will be able to attend. This leads to a monoculture which looses the advantages of having all walks of life in one community. Different points of view are essential. A sustainable campus will benefit from this. It would be impossible for a university campus to sustain itself if no students could afford to go there.

The University of Waterloo is on the way towards sustainability. It is not a goal to be reached but a process that the campus is striving to achieve. There are many things we can do to make the UW campus sustainable. These things range from political decentralisation to waste management to education. It is important to realise that as we grow and technologies improve, our ability to decrease negative environmental impacts will also improve. It is in universities that these technologies will be created and tested. The students of the University of Waterloo are the workers of the future. If they enter the workforce with a realistic, practical environmental perspective then the University of Waterloo has made a step towards global sustainability. By thinking locally at the campus level, a university such as UW can be an inspiration to the world.

[1]Slocombe and Van Bers, Ecological Design Criteria for a Sustainable Canadian Society, 1992.