Multifaceted sustainability efforts help shape an urban D.C. campus
WASHINGTON - American University has made the national stage by being the first university in the country to reach carbon neutrality - beating a goal to do so by 2020. But what does being a sustainable urban campus really mean in Washington?
Carbon neutrality is having a net zero carbon footprint, as explained by Hannah Debelius, sustainability manager in the university’s Office of Sustainability. It can be achieved by balancing the amount of carbon released on campus with an equivalent amount of offsets, or even by buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference, she said.
“You know, so much of sustainability, you can’t see. When you walk on campus, there’s nothing you see that lets you know that 100 percent of our electricity is from a renewable source. But when you walk on campus and there are almost 3,000 trees or sustainably managed native plants, it’s just something that brings to life our sustainability commitment,” Debelius said.
Carbon neutrality is just one of the multifaceted efforts American has made towards a greener, more sustainable campus. According to the university, achieving carbon neutrality at American was due to the roughly 1.2 million trees planted worldwide by American and it’s partners.
The university’s arboretum features almost 400 different species and varieties of woody plants, allowing it to be accredited at a level two out of four levels. Michael Mastrota, arboretum manager at American, is doing his part to help keep the campus green. Walking around the campus, the average visitor will see various species of seasonal or exotic plants and flowers. Mastrota said that the selection process is to include as much variety in species as possible while taking into account biological factors for plant survival.
“We have a very diverse student population from all over the world, as well as faculty and staff, so we actually try to increase our diversity of plant material as well,” Mastrota said. “If you’re a student from a different country you can hopefully find a plant that you might recognize from your homeland, here on campus.”
Right now, though, something is getting in the way of all those plants: construction. American is in the midst of a campus-wide heating renovation project - one more element in its sustainability initiatives. Announced last spring, the project includes a switch from a districted steam system to one of low-temperature hot water.
Douglas Fairley, assistant director for capital renewal and deferred maintenance, said American has been running on steam for at least 60 years but this switch could annually save the university $1 million and reduce the carbon footprint by 5,000 metric tons.
The heating project is handled by American’s Facilities Management Department, which is the umbrella department for 2Fix, shuttle services, grounds, sustainability, energy and engineering. Mark Feist, assistant director of grounds, vehicle maintenance and support services, said his grounds staff regularly meets with the construction staff to discuss plans to mediate for the areas that have been dug up.
Mastrota added that American wouldn’t be able to accomplish all of its sustainability initiatives without it’s “green” partnerships, which include being a National Wildlife Federation certified habitat, a National Audubon Society certified community and a member of the pollinator protection campaign, seen most to students through AU Beekeeping Society.
Jesse Pearlmutter, president of the beekeeping group, said their relationships with the sustainability and facilities offices are integral to the functioning of their organization.
“One of the things that make us a great asset to the campus is that bees pollinate in a two to five-mile radius,” Pearlmutter said. There are other pollinators on campus, he added, but “the beekeeping society represents an important stake of the university.”
Recently working with Stephanie DeStefano, the grounds operations manager at American, Pearlmutter said they were given an arboretum tour to have a greater understanding of the sustainability efforts of the arboretum.
DeStefano said her crew also works towards other sustainability efforts on campus such as moving towards greener equipment that would run off electric batteries and propane versus gas powered equipment.
Another cog in this environmental mission involves the work done by the Office of Sustainability. Debelius said that while the landscaping initiatives are executed independently of their office, the architects that work towards beautifying the campus are much appreciated and used in their communication and outreach efforts.
Another recent development involves the grounds crew changing the operation of the campus’ planting cycles.
This year is different. Historically, American followed the standard green industry practice of changing out the spring bulbs with summer annual bulbs every year.
“For our fall planting we’ve changed all of that. We have changed those planting sites, that 12,000 square feet, to permanent beds,” Feist said. “We planted a mix of shrubs, perennials, ground covers, and daffodil buds which will naturalize. So next spring, when they are done blooming, we will not be removing those.”
He said the new process is a more efficient use of funding. It will also allow the campus to attain “that colorful look” but do so without continuously changing the beds. It also means fewer plants are wasted, even if they would have gone to the composting plant regardless.
“I definitely would want to praise the work of the grounds crew directly,” Pearlmutter said. “They do a good job at limiting pesticide use and they also plant a lot of pollinator plants on campus. And as a student, I enjoy being on such a green campus.”
American University gained arboretum status in 2003, 84 acres of the campus became recognized as an accredited arboretum and now incorporates several sustainability efforts campus-wide. (Photo by Katya Podkovyroff Lewis)