It just makes sense that colleges and universities should be green spaces. Some of this is kind of inherent and wholly unsurprising — dorms, like apartment buildings, are by their nature more efficient than single-family homes. Much of it is image-based — you know those college kids, with their drum circles and their quaint ideals and their love of green roofs and well-insulated dormitories. But there are no shortage of practical reasons, having to do with both branding and old-fashioned energy bills, for schools to get green. For schools and universities, working towards a greener physical plant makes sense for both practical and image-related reasons. While a green roof or an LEED-certified dorm is appealing to college kids — scientists are still trying to figure out the exact age when people stop wanting to live someplace green and unique and start wanting to live in a giant glassy luxury condo — it’s also true that a building that runs more efficiently and will do so for years is just about equally appealing to administrators and decision-makers who are paying off their initial investment not with an endless pool of maintenance fees or insanely expensive condos, but with taxpayer or tuition dollars. But, and stop us if you’ve heard this one before, a morass of vague or self-interested or just plain un-illuminating rating systems and rankings make it tough to tell just how green a given school is or isn’t. The Princeton Review’s new Guide to 286 Green Colleges — for which Princeton Review partnered with the U.S. Green Building Council — is a promising attempt to figure all this out. And if the 37 New York schools (10 of them in New York City itself) that cracked the list are any indication, it contains some promising news for New Yorkers.
The problem here, as usual, is figuring out what it means to be green. In a piece for the Lower Hudson Journal News, Noreen O’Donnell examines the attempts of such schools as Sarah Lawrence College and Pace University to get greener both in their physical plants and curricula. What she finds is, predictably, pretty complicated — good-faith efforts at sustainability from cash-strapped schools and a flawed and half-backwards rating system (courtesy of the Sierra Club) that doesn’t seem to be working properly, but an encouraging preponderance of good intentions from both students and administrators. Of course, this blog isn’t called Good Intentions NYC, but the fact that students are putting pressure on administrators to green their campuses is obviously good news, and the dawning recognition on the part of those administrators that certain green building innovations — maybe not LEED-Brain goofery like solar panels, but definitely simple stuff like more efficient appliances and design — can actually be as cost-effective as they are nifty is the sort of thing that makes your gbNYC types very happy.
In the Watertown Daily Times, Lori Shull describes the impressive greening efforts made by St. Lawrence and Clarkson Universities, a pair of upstate private universities. “SLU’s Johnson Hall of Science (above) was awarded a gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification in 2008,” Shull writes. “It was the first college building in the state to receive the gold rating. Clarkson completed its Technology Advancement Center early last year and is awaiting LEED certification. Its student center, which is scheduled to be completed this summer, also will be submitted for LEED certification.”
It’s all good stuff, but what jumped out at me most, even though I can’t seem to find an article about it, was the presence of 12 public universities among New York’s 37 green colleges. For all the many, many dysfunctions of our state’s politics — there’s a great/depressing-unto-death article in the most recent issue of Harper’s on the nightmare that is Albany that is, sadly, stuck behind that magazine’s subscription wall — much of the NYSERDA-scale (and more local-scale) government-led greening efforts in the state have been hugely encouraging. But there’s a buried story here in the proliferation of New York’s green public universities that’s especially encouraging. While every school has to sell itself to prospective students, public schools are, finally, beholden to taxpayers as well as alums, students, et al. If a large and growing number of CUNY and SUNY decision-makers didn’t think that green building was cost-effective enough to stand up to public scrutiny, there simply wouldn’t be green buildings at SUNY-Cobleskill or wherever. College students may be the most receptive possible audience for new green buildings, but schools — public and private, but especially public — wouldn’t be going green if it wasn’t going to save them money down the line. That they’re doing it suggests that the vanishing cost gap between building green and building brown is finally, finally, starting to enter the public consciousness.