September 30, 2022 — The austere Brutalist-style buildings in the Van Ness neighborhood of Washington, DC seem an unlikely target for lasting renovation. But when the campus of the historically black University of the District of Columbia (UDC) began to show signs of deterioration, the administration decided to go beyond just fixing things and using the upgrade. level as an opportunity to both stimulate and teach not only about environmental, but also social, sustainability.
Founded in 1851 and now consisting of several small campuses across the city, UDC is the city’s only public university. It is also unusual in that it is a land-grant university entirely located in an urban area and focused on urban agriculture. The student body includes not only traditional undergraduate and graduate students, but also those enrolled in workforce development, community colleges, and other non-traditional student programs.
In service since 1968, the buildings on the Van Ness campus, lining one of DC’s busiest thoroughfares and adjoining a diplomatic enclave of a dozen embassies, needed repairs. Rather than simply maintaining them, college officials saw an opportunity to make the university more resilient and, in doing so, turn it into a laboratory for students to learn sustainable practices.
“It’s a university that doesn’t have a lot of notoriety in land-grant country. …So we said, how do we differ significantly? says Sabine O’Hara, director of the doctoral program in urban leadership and entrepreneurship at the university’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES). “And the answer that we’ve found, particularly because of the student body that we have, is that it has to be totally integrated and it has to take the learning environment for those students seriously.”
“The whole of UDC is a laboratory for the students, the community and the city,” says Javier Dussan, Vice President of Facilities Management and Real Estate at UDC.
One of the most visible symbols of the new emphasis on sustainability with a focus on education is a LEED Platinum certified student center. Completed in 2016, it is part of a partnership with the district government to train students in best practices for operating and maintaining environmentally friendly buildings.
“They’re learning but also experiencing the consequences of having a sustainable building on campus,” says Dussan. “The real impact is having the ability to say to students, ‘This is what a LEED Platinum building is, and it’s up to you to use it.’
Less visible changes have also taken place in recent years and are continuing. An aging roof was replaced with a green roof, including a robust urban gardening space, with the help of the architecture masterclass. The roof extends the university’s food production, laboratory and research space by nearly half an acre (0.2 hectares) complementing the 143-acre (58-hectare) research and teaching farm just outside of town, and five food center sites that provide training as well as fresh produce in the District’s food deserts. Students who work at the university’s community farmers’ market, food bank, or related projects receive their food safety certification.
“We started food hubs because we found it difficult to get people to come to the farm,” says Harris Trobman, a specialist in green infrastructure projects at the university. “Our goal is not to grow as much food as possible, but to treat each one as a kind of museum, a little laboratory, with demonstration sites, experimental sites, to show what is possible.”
During this time, students in the Water and Resource Management program worked on the installation and ongoing maintenance of a flood control project on campus. During heavy storms, runoff from the roof of the underground parking garage would flood campus buildings. Now, a 92,000 square foot (8,500 square meter) plaza deck, built above the parking garage, is covered with permeable pavers that act as a pre-treatment for stormwater, which is then channeled into three, 5,000 gallon (19,000-litre) tanks.
In the district, the unemployment rate for black residents is 12.5%, more than seven times the unemployment rate for white residents. UDC partners with the district’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), DC Water, DC Solar, and other local and federal agencies to train underemployed and unemployed people in the district to that they qualify for certifications such as the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program, and then place them in sustainable jobs with partners.
“We have higher success rates [of our workforce development students] than many other programs in the country, even though we take students who only have a high school diploma and who are underemployed or unemployed, and they compete with people who have a diploma in landscape architecture,” says O’Hara. “Once they passed the [green national infrastructure exam] they are then equipped to perform rain garden design installation and maintenance and other related green infrastructure projects.
Some of these initiatives, including solar panels and water supply infrastructure at the Van Ness and other campuses, have tangible financial benefits. Van Ness cisterns capture more water than the campus uses, and the excess can easily be used for community gardens or additional agricultural programs, or redeemed for local or national conservation credits. Trobman says UDC’s Bertie Backus campus, across town from Van Ness and home to the university’s nursing programs, expects an appropriation of nearly US$13,000 for water conservation from the DOEE after replacing the old turf with native landscaping and adding cisterns.
The city will provide further credits for solar energy on various campuses. As part of an agreement with the city for funding and other support for UDC’s sustainability initiatives, credits are earmarked for student scholarships in any discipline, providing another opportunity students to learn and engage in sustainability initiatives, even if they’re not directly involved in the on-campus programs themselves.
“A student may say, ‘I’m going to UDC because a solar panel has been installed,'” explains Dussan. “It’s tying it to someone’s future. It’s not an easy link to make, but we have to.
It’s a Connection O’Hara says more universities will be forced to create both for the resilience of their own buildings and for the future career opportunities of their students. “Campuses will need to invest more and more in green infrastructure. Energy is not cheaper. We all experience either severe droughts or floods, and there seems to be very little in between,” she says. “Campuses will have to adapt their infrastructure to say, ‘How can we do better with stormwater management?’ “How do we absorb runoff water? ‘How do we mitigate the heat?’
She goes on with a recommendation for other universities: “Whenever you do a project like this where you improve campus infrastructure to become more resilient, turn it into a project for your students.”
Editor’s note: Molly McCluskey is a Washington, DC-based journalist and LEED Green Associate certified.