Spotlighting America's greenest college town

Spotlighting America's greenest college town

The District of Columbia Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge started with numbers. Nine, for example.

That is the number of institutions of higher learning that signed the pledge in 2012 as part of then Mayor Vincent Gray’s quest to transform the nation’s capital into the “healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.” And three: That is how many “Green Star” awards each college could earn under the program. Five, too—the number of sustainability achievements required to earn each star. 

Then the numbers got fuzzier, according to an article by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Each school was supposed to set its own goals around issues like green building, water and energy reduction, education, research, purchasing and transportation. A university could commit to reducing potable water use per square foot by X percent from a baseline figure, for example, or hosting Y major sustainability outreach events annually, or ensuring that Z percent of food and beverage dollars were spent on sustainably sourced food.

But it turned out that each school measured things differently. One school’s X percent decrease might have been another school’s Y, and one school’s definition of a “sustainability-focused” course (worth a point toward a Green Star) might vary ever so slightly from the rest of the group’s.

“The universities spent a lot of time trying to figure out how they could collect data in a way that allowed everyone to share it,” said Dan Guilbeault, chief of sustainability and equity for the District’s Department of Energy & Environment. “That turned out to be a much bigger challenge than anyone anticipated. Everybody collects data just a little bit differently, and this discussion was really monopolizing a lot of the time of the pledge.”

So the members of the pledge revised their plans. Even if the colleges’ representatives could not compare their sustainability statistics with the rest of the group in a true apples-to-apples fashion, they could still share their progress with each other.

Even if no one would be doling out Green Stars, they could still collaborate on projects and benefit from direct access to the district’s sustainability personnel.

While several institutions employ full-time sustainability directors, for example, some of the others rely on various faculty or facilities staffers to serve as a point person on green issues. Still, there was a feeling among leaders at some of the universities that the pledge must include all of the district’s major institutions of higher learning—or include none of them. Only through a unified approach, they felt, could the colleges announce themselves as leaders in the movement to make D.C. into a beacon of sustainability.

Ultimately, all nine major institutions of higher learning in the district—excepting for-profit schools and niche institutions such as seminaries—signed on to the pledge. The list included American University, Catholic University of America, Gallaudet University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, Trinity Washington University, the University of the District of Columbia, and Corcoran College of Art and Design (which has since merged with George Washington, bringing the current number of signatories to eight).

Topics: Architectural Firms, Building Owners and Managers, Construction Firms, Educational Buildings - Colleges and Universities, Engineering Firms, Student Housing, Sustainable Communities, Urban Planning and Design, USGBC, Wastewater Management / Wastewater Treatment, Water Saving Strategies and Devices

Companies: U.S. Green Building Council

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