• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Lightening burdens of living and moving

Of late, I've been thinking a lot about how campuses and their surrounding communities interrelate in ways that affect the sustainability (or lack thereof) of both.

March 19, 2012

Of late, I've been thinking a lot about how campuses and their surrounding communities interrelate in ways that affect the sustainability (or lack thereof) of both. 

One of the most salient aspects of the interrelationship has to do with housing patterns and transportation -- I wish it could be boiled down to one or the other, but it really can't.  The amount and nature of commuting travel for university students, faculty and staff is largely determined by the distribution of available housing space compared with the distribution of available public transit.  If the two are both readily available and the patterns of availability jibe (housing is near timely transit and vice versa), then the burden of commuting is small.  Otherwise, it tends to be large (read "single occupancy vehicles").  In most cities (not the biggest, but the largest number), large burdens seem to be the rule.

Obviously, residential colleges/universities decouple -- to some degree -- the patterns of living and travel on campus from those in the surrounding community.  But no school that I know of provides on-campus housing to all of its students and all of its faculty and all of its staff.  So it's not a question of whether, it's a question of degree.  Small residential liberal arts colleges might be at one end of the scale, some large commuter schools toward the other.

To the extent that members of the campus community live off campus then, the cost, energy consumption, time requirement, greenhouse gas emissions and all other aspects of commuting behavior are determined mostly by the nature of the community, not the nature of the educational institution.

Some schools, I know, are trying to address this by attracting employees to live within walking distance of campus or by improving somewhat the public transit options available.  But here in Backboro (as, I'm sure, in many communities), those are hard things to do.  Many of the houses within walking distance of campus have been converted over the years to for-profit student housing (not too different from the dumps I lived in when I was an undergrad -- certainly no place I'd choose to live in, or next to, given a reasonable range of options).  The remaining areas nearby -- the ones that can be considered in any sense attractive -- are generally filled with long-term Greenback employees who are in no particular hurry to move out.  And once we look further from campus than reasonable walking distance (which isn't as far during the winter as it is in May, for instance), the availability of public transit is scarce and getting scarcer.

See, the too-familiar pattern of suburban sprawl -- live in a single-family house, move far enough from the center of the city that you can get the size of land and improvements you want for a price you can afford to pay, then do your penance twice daily alone in your car -- just isn't amenable to quick, efficient, attractive, cost-effective transit options.  People live spread out over too large an area, at too low a population density, and want/need to go to too wide a range of destinations at too many different times of day.  Mass transit (publicly owned or otherwise) can only be efficient given certain levels of density (residential, employment and commercial), relatively short distances (such as from city to suburb, but probably not to exurb), and fairly predictable patterns of demand.  Which isn't to say that mass transit requires some sort of Big-Brother-esque degree of planning and control, it doesn't.  But transit works better in places like New York or Chicago or Portland than it does in San Diego or Houston.  And it works better in places like Stockholm and Hong Kong than in any US city I've seen so far.

The overall pattern of cities that provide the best living environments combined with the best transit options seems to involve neighborhoods that cluster around suburban town centers, with the suburban centers clustered around the city center per se.  People walk, bike, or take some sort of convenient shuttle service to the center of the town they live in, and then transfer to some sort of high-capacity, high-speed transit to go downtown (if they even need to go downtown -- many work in a suburban center close to where they live).  The high-speed transit is generally electrified (electric motors being inherently quieter, cleaner and much more efficient than internal combustion engines), and the overall grid or hub-and-spoke layout of the population centers makes fixed, grid-connected electrical transit practical and efficient.

If colleges and universities are going to address the unsustainable nature of commuting behavior currently exhibited by most of their faculty, staff and off-campus students, they'll need to find more effective ways of promoting both the availability and the use of mass transit than has been the case so far.  And the transit problem can't successfully be addressed without addressing housing patterns.  And housing patterns can't be addressed without dealing with the lack of commercial options in at least some cities (those with "hollow cores").  The new urbanists have it right, but "right" isn't the same as "easy".

So what's a poor college to do?

Well, my take is that colleges and universities are better positioned than most social institutions to foster, to facilitate, to promote, even to sponsor the kind of attractive yet densely clustered mixed-use (residential/employment/commercial) developments that can -- over time -- change the pattern of living and moving in our communities.  The campus, itself, is a powerful attractor.  Given enough thoughtful planning, an attractive mixed-use cluster could be created within reasonable walking distance of campus.  (It might be necessary for the city to exercise its power of eminent domain to make this practicable, but -- hey -- they're party to this pattern of interaction just as much as the university is, and they stand to benefit at least as much from a successful result.)  Such a mixed-use development, done right, could attract faculty, staff, alumni, grad students and a wide range of hangers-on.  Like any number of on-campus demonstration projects (the 50kW wind turbine and the small perma-scaped area that the grounds crew always hated to mow anyway come immediately to mind), it could expand the frame of conversation about what's realistically achievable.  But unlike many demo projects, if done well it could be commercially successful in the long term.  It might generate an immediate demand for more of the same, but in another location.

And then we'd have two high-density mixed-use residential areas.  And we could connect them by means of attractive, enjoyable, energy-efficient mass transit.  And there's no telling where that might end.




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