Town & Country: A Tale of Two Cultures


July 28, 2009

“Andy Dunham’s lettuce looks like a bouquet of flowers, and his farm is a five minute walk from campus. Who can beat that?” asks Grinnell student and local foods activist Hart Ford.

Located in a small town in central Iowa, Grinnell College, with its leisurely placed buildings, generous green spaces, intensely on-campus culture, and a student population of just 1,600, is in many ways representative of the rural campus. The school grapples with many common issues in rural sustainability: ecosystem restoration, preserving biodiversity, and the difficulties of working for change in an area defined by political and personal conservativism.

The question of whether urban or rural settings lend themselves better to long-term sustainability is hotly debated among experts: on the one side, high-density areas cut down on the amount of necessary space and transportation per capita while concentrating human resources; on the other, rural settings provide people with the capacity to restore natural ecosystems around them and meet many of their own needs in self-sufficient ways that are not possible in crowded urban spaces. Both positions have demonstrable advantages and disadvantages–many of which can be illustrated by a closer look at two campuses that embody the challenges of the rural and the urban.

Pastoral Progress

Hart Ford is one of many student leaders in environmental work at Grinnell. She first became interested in rural sustainability issues when she worked at Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa, where she worked for farmer, political activist, and mentor Francis Thicke. An organic, grass-based dairy with on-farm processing facilities for their dairy products, Radiance Dairy sells all of its products locally. As an employee, Hart became accustomed to eating high quality, fresh, local foods–and when she went back to Grinnell for the school year, she wasn’t willing to stop. So she organized a local food buying coop to connect Grinnell area farmers with faculty, staff, and students who eat some or all of their meals outside of the dining halls. The rewards have been multiple. Not only does Hart, along with some forty other coop participants, get to eat the best and most nutritious food available, she also enjoys the opportunity to cultivate relationships with farmers, learning from them and deepening her sense of community. As Grinnell’s dining services increase their local food offerings, they have relied upon these already-developed relationships to locate and partner with the farmers most able to meet their needs.

CERA Building, Grinnell College
Grinnell College's Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) building, with lab, classrooms, and facilities for ecological restoration, was the first LEED Gold building in Iowa. The wind turbine supplies the building with electricity, and reconstructed tallgrass praire surrounds the center. (V. Eckhart)
Grinnell College places a high priority on moving rapidly toward sustainability: among their environmental efforts, the college has set an emissions reduction goal of 20% below anticipated 2010 levels–in part through the construction of a 3-4 mW utility scale wind turbine project. Their expansive new athletic facilities will be temperature controlled by geothermal means, which is expected to reduce greenhouse emissions by another 12% for that facility.

However, the school’s agrarian surroundings aren’t always a boon. Perhaps nowhere at Grinnell is this more evident than at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), eleven miles from the main campus. The first building in Iowa to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Rated designation, CERA’s education center was designed to minimize disturbance to the surrounding prairie, maximize exposure for winter solar heating, and incorporate other sustainable design features such as geothermal energy and a storm water cistern which collects rainwater for plumbing use and irrigating the attached greenhouse. A 50 kW wind turbine provides more than 90% of the electricity needs for the center and reduces carbon dioxide emissions related to energy use.

However, CERA visitors and employees endure the stench of a 4,000 animal industrial hog operation next door, especially on windy days. Issues around land use and local conventions come up again and again; the staff recently had to rescue several rare and valuable specimens of wetland plants that the county had uprooted by dredging a ditch that bordered the property-a disturbance created in order to appropriate topsoil for a nearby farmer. According to field station manager Larissa Mottl, “the most frustrating part about caring so intensively about the 365 acres at CERA is watching as the surrounding landscape continues to degrade. Corn ethanol production and incentives are reversing the 20+ years of improvements in soil and water quality aided by the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In the last 2 years I have watched several CRP fields just in the 15 miles between Grinnell and CERA plowed under and planted to corn.”

Tension over land extends even to the main campus. CERA director Vince Eckhart says “Industrial agribusiness rules, here. And even in town the ruling aesthetic is manicured lawns… plant a bunch of native vegetation and some people say it looks like a weed patch.” The largest objection to natural vegetation at Grinnell came not from anyone living in the town, however, but from Union Pacific Railroad, whose train tracks bisect the campus. Although receptive at first to the prairie walk lining the picturesque tracks, Union Pacific ultimately decided against it, using pesticides and weed whackers to destroy native vegetation, obliterating the results of countless hours of planning, planting, and love with no forewarning. The former insect habitat and biology teaching resource is no more. Nonetheless, the campus is taking advantage of its wide open spaces to advance native prairie plantings, student and community gardens, and other sustainability projects.

Efficient Lights, Big City

Earth Week Parade
NYU hosts an Earth Week event, inviting neighbors to partcipate in a biodiesel-fueled concert, lectures on recycling and biking, vegetarian dining and nature walks. (Julie Goodness)
NYU hosts an Earth Week event, inviting neighbors to partcipate in a biodiesel-fueled concert, lectures on recycling and biking, vegetarian dining and nature walks. (Julie Goodness)

New York University, by contrast, has an enrollment of over 50,000 students in one of the most dense urban areas in North America. The school is an elegant study in the effective use of minimal space. According to NYU Sustainability Director Jeremy Friedman, “Given the way NYU is structured, we’re really a mid-sized city in and of ourselves. We’re plunked down right in the middle of Manhattan, a microcosm of how our cities function. This gives us a valuable opportunity in sustainability–we can pilot the new best practices and translate them directly into solutions for cities around the world.”

Despite the smog, pollution, and traffic of the city, urban schools may have an edge when it comes to sustainability, due to the ease of community partnerships. NYU participates in many efforts sponsored by the city. For instance, NYU Dining Services was a partner in the NYC Cares/Million Trees NYC campaign in April; students participated by skipping a plastic bag and making a donation to the program. Dining Services donates leftover food that is fit for consumption to Two Birds, One Stone, a group founded by an NYU student that is dedicated to feeding New York City’s hungry and reducing landfill waste. Students may also donate extra meals on their dining plan.

The university also spawns its own extended network of resources. NYU has a thriving Green Alumni Network. With hundreds of thousands of alumni in the city, they have a powerful capacity to connect with each other and with students, fostering connections throughout the city to integrate local and global concerns.

Jeremy Friedman thinks that NYU’s strength lies in its foundational work. “We’ve been focused on getting a lot of unglamorous but important basics right. The starting point is energy efficiency. The starting point for saving energy is much, much higher than at a less dense location. NYU, just like the rest of NYC, consists primarily of vertical buildings, shared walls, and small apartments–all naturally efficient by their design. All this really adds up to enormous savings in energy.”

Even more energy savings come from NYU’s power generation. Last year, NYU was the largest university purchaser of wind power in the US. And in April 2010, NYU’s new cogeneration plant–which captures and reuses the heat it generates in operation–will open. The new plant is intended to significantly improve energy efficiency for the university, reduce greenhouse emissions by 15% in the first year of operation, and allow the school to take some of its buildings completely off the local power grid. With the cogeneration plant located underground, the “roof” will be a ground-level green space, lush with plants and trees, and open to public use.

Urban Garden
Urban gardeners find any space they can to plant flowers and herbs, as evidenced by this garden in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. (George Reiss)
Green spaces such as the one covering the cogeneration plant are essential for keeping urbanites connected with nature. Friedman says, “One of our biggest challenges is giving people a sense of connection. Some people ask, ‘Why do we even worry about this here?’ It’s a conceptual challenge. We’re really interested in developing a partnership with faculty in food studies and urban design to figure out how these planted spaces can also be sites for research. We have all these small, individual green spaces, ten by twelve square feet, which we can combine in a comprehensive design vision to create an edible landscape. Our other gardens include a woodland garden and a new project using restoration ecology to create an original landscape from the era of Henry Hudson, circa 1609.”

While the size and resources of an urban school like NYU can create a powerful base for sustainability work, the diversity and scale of operation can make unified effort difficult. NYU is a patchwork of many schools, each with their own set of policies and procedures. While this presents challenges for university-wide changes, it also means it is easy to implement pilot projects within a single school or building that can then be scaled across campus.

No Easy Answers

With their dense and diverse populations, urban areas offer a wide array of resources and potential partners for sustainability work. On the other hand, rural areas contain open, usable space and partners with valuable knowledge, expertise, and other resources to offer, such as the Iowa farmers who provide food for Grinnell’s local food coop. Furthermore, rural and urban campuses are not uniformly categorizable–large universities in rural settings may have more in common with NYU than they do with Grinnell, for instance, simply by dint of size and scale.

Instead, it may be more useful to think of the particular successes of each campus as the result of partnerships between the individuals and organizations that attend mindfully to their neighbours and their specific needs. Thriving partnerships adapt themselves to their specific location, geographical surroundings, institutional size, and unique campus culture to create powerful and needed models of sustainability–making the question of “which is better?” a false one.

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Published: July 28, 2009