The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 1: December 2002 [Spotlight]
By Yonatan Strauch
I realized that these were not just a few isolated projects but the beginning of a grassroots movement during the Ball State ‘Greening of the Campus’ conference in 2001. There I encountered students who are living in eco-residences and meeting each other for the first time. I met one of the architects who later helped us gain official acceptance for our project at Mount Allison. I also sat in on a meeting of the North American group, HENSE (Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment), at which the student/grassroots dimension of creating a well integrated campus sustainability movement appeared missing. Together these events inspired and compelled me to explore the emergence of ecological living on campus and to connect with those who are trying to create or already living or working in campus ecological living centers. Here I use the term ‘ecological living center’ for even the most modest or informal of theme houses as they all provide a space in which we can take steps towards living sustainably.
I recruited students, educators and architects to join a network of people working to create spaces for sustainable living on campus. As I sent out feelers, I discovered the existence of nearly a dozen more projects in various states of development and a good number of additional allies.
Last spring, I was able to explore this grassroots movement on the ground thanks to an undergraduate research grant from my university. With a big pack and a month-and-a-half Greyhound Ameripass, I set out to visit 12 universities around the northeast and Midwest United States. At each school I was greeted with hospitality from students hard at work to actualize ecological living on their campus. Below is a reflection on what I learned as well as my wider explorations of this movement.
Seeds of a Movement
California being the forerunner that it is, it is only in the last ten years that student sustainability centers have been popping up across the rest of North America. Many are residences with various degrees of sustainable infrastructure and a focus on lifestyle. By 1995 there were centers with their own academic program at Slippery Rock University (Slippery Rock, PA) and California Polytechnic University (Pomona, CA), and planning was underway for a Northland College (Ashland, WI) environmental residence, the McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center, which opened in the fall of 1998. Of course, significant aspects of sustainable living have been visible at eco-theme houses and some housing and food co-ops for decades, although without the direct purpose of being sustainability centers.
While ecological living centers are still rare, the last few years have seen an increasing number of student groups and professors (and the occasional institution) articulating this idea independently. From Mount Allison to Dalhousie to Waterloo to the University of North Carolina, students, professors and other allies are working together to create a house that is, ecologically and socially speaking, a home. And they are getting results! As we become aware of one another and begin to communicate, we are building a grassroots movement to bring examples of sustainable living to higher education.
The Power to Create Meaningful Change
The power of community-based, ecologically sound student housing is that it integrates the technology and culture of sustainability. The resulting firsthand, tangible lessons cannot be taught by traditional environmental education. Nor can they be learned through an ecologically built science building or a thematic earth-house within a regular building (though both are great beginnings). A green building will endure, but the values enshrined in it may be forgotten. The educational value of the synergy between a community and ecological design can create powerful and enduring catalysts for change on campus.
A Few Stories and a Few Lessons
It is remarkable that there is to date no collective account of these projects. This article is a very preliminary set of snapshots designed to whet the reader’s appetite to learn more and visit the developing campus ecovillage network website. What I found most valuable that I am unable to share here is the story of each project in its place.
As at Slade, you can find a twenty year old scrap book at the Eco-house at Northland College (depicting things like the building of a greenhouse or a straw bale test building). The Eco-house, however, has been moved from a recently demolished theme house village that included spirituality, community outreach, and a women’s studies house, into the environmentally designed but short-on-character McLean Environmental Living Learning Center (ELLC). The ELLC, though progressive in its design, is a large dorm built to house around 100 students, for most of whom the place seems to offer nothing particularly special. The Ecology house at Cornell is similar to the ELLC in concept, though not technology. It was described to me as an extremely wasteful building that does not facilitate community interactions. In addition, Cornell does not always reserve it for students with ecological interests. Still, my host (now living off campus with friends) found it to be an unintimidating entry point from which to form activist communities.
Though I only saw a few co-operatives on my journey, it seems to me that many are very similar to the smaller eco-theme houses in that they constitute a stable community space and support local farms, but are not usually engaged in optimizing the ecological performance of their facilities. They differ from theme houses in that they are economically self reliant.
At Unity College (Unity, ME), a working class college, students rough it in the woods, not only to be close to nature and reduce their footprint, but to save money. The story is different again at Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH). Two tireless students have incorporated Sustainable Communities Associates in order to purchase an old downtown building to turn it into a multi-use building with a community center as well as student and low income housing. When you don’t work within the institution, you don’t have to lobby or struggle with delays and dubious compromises, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. On the other hand, if you can win institutional support, its resources are available for the project and it can be integrated into academic life and change the character of the institution.
The New Kids on the Block
CEL (Consortium for Ecological Living) at the University of Vermont is a student group that emerged out of a class of ecological designer John Todd. My CEL host, Michelle, shared stories of long, often draining (though ultimately fruitful) lobbying to get the university to integrate ecological design into its next student dorm project. I know as well as Michelle that a foot-dragging institution can sap the energy of a student group should they choose to continue engaging it. Though prospects remain unclear in the long run, UVM may also build an ecologically-designed community style house that could include some living learning programs. People I spoke to at all of these institutions expressed concerns over what the planning and design process will lead to, how green the technology will end up being, and who will control the process.
The Work Colleges
At Sterling College (Craftsbury Common, VT), an environmentally focused school (though not yet in terms of design) of only 100 students, half the school turned out to see a student-directed study presentation on a proposed green-dorm. The Ecodorm at Warren Wilson College (Asheville, NC) was designed with students, who participated in weekly meetings with the architects for an entire year. The dorm, which will come on line in January, will include a food co-operative and as of yet undetermined educational activities. It is, however, the last of eight new dorms and the only one designed from an environmental perspective. This is despite Warren Wilson’s being an environmental studies school. Even the most supportive environments have a long way to go.
The Academic Dimension
At Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), Ecovillage at Ithaca is building partnerships with professors to become involved in academic activities, and engineering students, working with a leading expert, have used a directed study course to propose solar electrification of a new residence building. At Mount Allison University, we have run out of ideas for directed studies and are now using a ‘planning process’ class to move the design phase along. Oberlin’s Ecological Design Innovation Center is planning to take full advantage of this as it develops the George Jones Farm, which will include a student housing co-op and space for educational activities. The Farm is intended to introduce agricultural innovations to local farmers, educate the wider community about organic farming, and serve as a training and research facility for Oberlin College students.
While I have not explored student farms as much as other forms of ecological living centers, they too can form a synergy between design and community. Aside from the work colleges that already offer students the opportunity to work on organic farms, students are attempting to create farms they can learn on and eat from. In addition to the Jones Farm at Oberlin, there are similar efforts at Middlebury College and Cornell University.
The Campus Ecovillage Network would support the emergence and growth of sustainable student life on the college campuses of North America, with a focus on home and student housing. It could aim to (1) inspire and empower students to create community-based and ecologically-sound housing; (2) strengthen projects in development by linking them to other such project in North America and to resources and people; and (3) strengthen existing projects through providing avenues of communication and opportunities for cooperation.
So far a significant number of students, academics, architects and designers involved in these projects have taken an interest in some form of network to nurture this fledgling movement. A website will be up soon at www.sierrayouth.org, where you can find resources and more in-depth information on these projects. I believe that in the coming years we will see more of these initiatives take hold and even more new ones spring up. We should all be grateful to those who are blazing the trail and have built up the critical mass necessary to bring sufficient attention to the awesome value of living sustainably on campus.
Yonatan Strauch is an undergraduate student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, Canada. You can contact Yonatan at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments, or to get involved.
Resources and case studies:
Global Ecovillage Network: www.gaia.org
Ecovillage Education Program: www.livingroutes.org
Humboldt State College Campus Center for Appropriate Technology: www.humboldt.edu/~ccat/
California State Polytechnic University Center for Regenerative Studies: www.csupomona.edu/~landlab/regnstud.html
Prescott College Mercury House: www.prescott.edu/news/headlines/113000.html
Northland College McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center: www.northland.edu/studentlife/ELLC/index.html
Berea College Ecovillage: www.berea.edu/sens/ecovillage.htm