Universities lie at the cutting edge of global innovation, discovery, and progress. Education is a crucial catalyst for change, especially as we all propel into an epoch of uncertainty and ecological doom (ah yes, that ‘bright future’ we were all promised). As university students go on to become leaders of change, it makes sense that the universities that train us must lead by example. The most significant and progressive trend in modern design, planning, and construction is the concept of green building. We could utilise that knowledge to bridge the connection between nature and humans; to spin all the hypothetical possibilities we can think of into an actual plan for a world-leading, climate change-combative centre of research and learning. Let’s dream big. What if our campus could lead the world to become a better place?
The nature of university life exposes students (and staff, for that matter) to high levels of stress. Heavy workloads, financial constraints, and struggles with maintaining a happy social/romantic life are just a few of the frustrations plaguing any given student. The research is clear; those unique university stressors affect our mental health, our academic performance, and our physical health. The relaxing atmosphere prompted by exposure to natural scenery is a proven way to help us relieve stress, form creative ideas, and improve our overall health. With that in mind, creating green university spaces is not only vital for our planet, but also for student wellbeing.
At the moment, you’d be far less likely to describe the majority of our campus lecture rooms as trailblazing green architecture and far more likely to observe a quaint ‘dingy 70s-era AA meeting room’ vibe. We could change that. Design ‘living walls’, with plants or algae scaling buildings. Create green roofs and rooftop gardens (oh I’m sorry, did I hear somebody say rooftop campus bar?). Incorporate indoor forest courtyards to create beautiful green spaces. Allow for plenty of natural light with skylights and large windows, that have the dual benefit of cutting down on electricity costs and making for warmer buildings via passive solar absorption.
The ‘built environment’ in New Zealand accounts for 20% of our national carbon footprint. The materials used on campus would need to be environmentally friendly. All of our building materials – concrete, timber, stone, metal, and so forth – would come from sources that have been third-party certified for sustainable resource extraction and fair labour. That or all the raw materials would be supplied from recycled or reused sources. Even the furniture we use could be made from recycled ocean plastic.
The university would aim to significantly reduce waste and run on a closed-loop water system. Our freshwater sources are increasingly at risk as climate change continues. If we learn about sustainable water use patterns now, we could avoid a source of major world wars in the future. All the water used would be captured (via collecting precipitation), treated, and repurposed on-site. If we’re really planning ahead, we would have composting toilets that cut down on sewage. I say we replace the often-problematic university lake with a reconstructed wetland that respects the natural hydrology of the terrain. Any wastewater could be treated or diverted towards the wetland (the perfect filtration system), where – as an added bonus – native wetland-loving species would congregate. In general, all of our waste would be recycled, composted, reused, or otherwise diverted from ending up in landfill. Single-use coffee cups and plastic bottles would become a thing of the past. We’d simply learn to bring our own, or we’d make use of borrowed mug systems and water fountains scattered around campus.
On-site food waste would be processed through large, accessible composts and the Faculty of Worms that exists today. That compost would be recycled onto our extensive campus rooftop gardens, where students can flex their horticultural skills and grow vegetables to be used in the Halls’ kitchens. We would increase the number of hives on campus, hold beekeeping courses, and encourage the community to plant native bee-friendly flowers.
The University of Waikato was already the first in the country to include electric vehicles in their fleet, and we can take further steps to green-ify our transport measures. We would create a space without dependency on fossil fuel-based transport. At the moment, SOV (single-occupancy vehicle) trips are taking up parking spaces and adding to our carbon footprint. We’d create a community that normalises carpooling, provides easily accessible public transport use, creates a pedestrian/bike-friendly haven with plenty of weather protection and bike storage, and encourages electric vehicles with more EV charging stations.
Energy would be completely provided by renewable sources on-site with no combustion required. Buildings use more energy than any other end-use, and that energy tends to come from sources that create ecological and/or political issues. LED lighting, phone charging stations, speakers blasting nature sounds in the bamboo-vaulted foyer…it would all be solar-powered. Our campus would well and truly run on clean energy. A happy consequence of these (and other) changes would be a big, proud ol’ zero carbon certificate.
Some of the other most influential changes we can make are through our curriculum. It isn’t enough to say ‘We need to do better for the sake of our environment’ just to then have our lecturers refuse to allow electronic note-taking and print an unnecessary stack of pages for every student in the class, every lecture. As students, we’re frustrated. We want to learn about how the world works, so seriously, teach us about how we can weave environmental sustainability into our careers. It should be considered in the curriculum of every single subject from engineering to marketing. We want to lead environmentally-friendly lives. And without a doubt, we want to stop climate change in its goddamn tracks. We just need the powers that be to facilitate that, or we have no chance.
Let’s create a campus that is not only efficient, economic, and impressive, but one that is stunning in every aspect. A design that complements the landscape rather than resisting it. Our university would be a vibrant and harmonious display of the best that environmental innovation has to offer. Let’s create a space that makes us (and Mother Nature)…happy.