Sustainable UConn

By Rich Miller

How our values about the environment, clean energy, and social responsibility are greening the Husky Blue. Rich Miller is director of the Office of Environmental Policy.

Vielen Dank, Freiburg

The Freiburg town hall (center), where I met with local officials, including the mayor's environmental director, and found 'Green City' tours and information.

The Freiburg town hall (center), where I met with local officials, including the mayor’s environmental director, and found ‘Green City’ tours and information.

It’s hard to compare the “Green City” of Freiburg, population 220,000 and home to Freiburg Uni (enrollment 23,000), with the small community of Mansfield, Connecticut, home to UConn’s main campus in Storrs, where the town’s population literally doubles when 22,000 students return in late August for the start of the academic year. In fact, it would be difficult comparing any town or city to Freiburg, with its unique blend of historical charm, natural surroundings, ecotourism, and green technology cluster. After my self-styled “International Sustainability Exchange,” which, thanks to a professional staff travel grant from UConn’s Office of Global Programs, consisted of two weeks of: (i) meetings and interviews with university and city officials, (ii) a guest lecture and conversations with graduate students studying Renewable Energy Management, and (iii) guided and self-guided tours of the campus, city, and surrounding sights, I left Germany reassured that UConn deserves its lofty #5 position in the Sierra Club’s 2012 rankings of America’s greenest colleges, yet inspired by Freiburg to envision how we can do even more to improve campus sustainability.

Beyond Freiburg’s strengths in renewable energy, mass transit, and bicycle friendliness (see the earlier posts in this blog), here are some takeaways based on my sustainability exchange experience.

UConn can do more to promote its natural assets. The 440-acre Fenton tract of the UConn Forest adjacent to the Agricultural/East Campus is certainly not as vast and scenic as the iconic Black Forest, which overlooks Freiburg and the university’s campus, but there is plenty of natural diversity for UConn students and local hikers to experience there. About eight years ago, student environmental organizations, led by EcoHusky and the Soil and Water Conservation Society, installed trail head signs on the East Campus, marking access points to Fenton forest hiking trails. Still, when I ask for a show of hands during one of my guest lectures, I’m always amazed that most third- and fourth-year UConn students, even those in environmental majors, have never been on the blue-blazed Nipmuck trail along the Fenton River, or walked through the Fenton tract to see the remnants of the University’s long-abandoned Horsebarn Hill ski lift, or its special forest areas featuring stands of old growth trees and the Oguschwitz Meadow. Similarly, there’s not widespread appreciation among students, faculty, or staff for the North Campus’s 64-acre Hillside Environmental Education Park, with its two miles of hiking trails, including boardwalks and observations decks over restored wetlands.

View of Freiburg from a hillside trail in the Black Forest.

View of Freiburg from a hillside trail in the Black Forest.

A popular hillside restaurant and beer garden helped attract people onto the Black Forest trails.

A popular hillside restaurant and beer garden helped attract people onto the Black Forest trails.

In contrast, from anywhere in Freiburg, there are constant reminders that the Black Forest – or “Schwarzvald” – is nearby. It’s a centerpiece of Freiburg’s vibrant ecotourism business and self-described identity. Freiburg has also created rest stops and embellished attractions that draw people of all ages up the hillside trails and into the forest, like benches, picnic areas, playgrounds, public art displays, historic monuments, an observation tower and, of course, a beer garden (this is Germany after all) overlooking the city.

It was a short hike into the Black Forest to this observation tower, which was built as a civic project with financial support from company and individual donors.The view of Freiburg from near the top of the observation tower. On a clear day, the Swiss Alps would be visible form this vantage point.

It was a short hike into the Black Forest to this observation tower, which was built as a civic project with financial support from company and individual donors.

The view of Freiburg from near the top of the observation tower. On a clear day, the Swiss Alps would be visible form this vantage point.

The view of Freiburg from near the top of the observation tower. On a clear day, the Swiss Alps would be visible form this vantage point.

It was also remarkable to be able to reach Freiburg’s many parks and natural attractions on foot or by bicycle, along well-marked bike paths. Leaving from the city’s centralized “Mobile” bike station, I pedaled for 30-40 minutes along the Dreisam River trail to reach Freiburg’s Seepark, a beautiful public lake, surrounded by open space and playing fields. It was a nice day and there were pockets of people, their bikes nearby, swimming or sunbathing on the grassy lakeside, but no parking lots for motor vehicles anywhere in sight. I biked on the trail that looped around the lake and stopped for lunch, a tasty Weisswurst, at the waterfront beer garden.

The lake at Seepark was easily accessible by bike from the inner city and Freiburg Uni's campus.

The lake at Seepark was easily accessible by bike from the inner city and Freiburg Uni’s campus.

I thought about a comparably-sized swimming hole near UConn’s main campus in Storrs, the Mansfield Hollow reservoir and picnic area. It’s probably about the same distance from Storrs as Seepark is from Freiburg’s inner-city, but getting to Mansfield Hollow by bike on the most direct path from the main campus would be along Route 195. With posted speed limits of 45 mph in sections, no designated bike lanes, and often narrow shoulders, Route 195 is the main drag into and out of UConn’s campus and one of the busiest state roads in Connecticut. In other words, Mansfield Hollow is not as easily connected to the campus or well-used by most UConn students.

Recycling made easy. UConn is now a single-stream campus (with a large inventory of dual-stream bins purchased just five years ago), while Freiburg Uni is decidedly multiple-stream. At UConn, students can use any recycling bin for any recyclable item. The green outdoor single stream bins are plentiful throughout the core campus and usually coupled with black trash containers, so that recycling is as convenient as trash disposal. At Freiburg, there were separate bins for different colored glass bottles: green, brown, yellow, or clear, alongside separate bins for different types of paper, and separate bins for aluminum cans, and separate bins for plastic bottles. Sometime these multiple-stream recycling bins were coupled with trash cans, but often they were not. While both universities receive a small financial incentive from their haulers for delivering clean streams of recyclables, UConn’s contractor separates items at its transfer station, which makes recycling more user-friendly and efficient on campus. Also, as a land grant university, with agricultural roots, we compost nearly 5,000 tons of organic waste a year at our state-of-the-art facility, constructed in 2010.

The bachle is a narrow canal system that collects stormwater and flows throughout Freiburg's Altstadt and portions of the university's campus.

The bachle is a narrow canal system that collects stormwater and flows throughout Freiburg’s Altstadt and portions of the university’s campus.

Sustainable stormwater management. Not too long ago, at the start of UConn 2000, the first stage of a $2.3 billion state bond-funded capital improvement program that has successfully transformed the University’s campuses, we had our share of problems managing stormwater, particularly from construction sites. UConn has responded over the past 10 years by becoming a national leader in on-campus low impact design (LID) features, such as rain gardens, bio-retention swales, permeable asphalt parking lots, porous paver snow shelves and terraces, and green roofs. By infiltrating rainwater, LID features maintain a site’s natural hydrology and ease the volume and velocity of runoff into conventional storm drainage systems, which can cause downstream erosion and carry sediment and pollution directly into rivers, lakes, and ponds. All of our on-campus LID features are part of the landscape and designed to be seen by thousands of students every day – some have signs describing their environmental benefits.

Another view of the bachle (canal system).

Another view of the bachle (canal system).

I was told by a reliable source that Freiburg Uni has several green roofs, but none of them appear to be easily visible or accessible to students. I photographed one green roof, which was shown to me from the third floor of an administrative office building. The city of Freiburg has plenty of impervious cover (IC), which usually correlates to water quality problems. However, I’m not sure that’s the case here.

Although IC is the antithesis of LID, one can hardly argue with the intricately inlaid brick and cobblestone walkways, roads, and plazas that are integral to the historic charm of Freiburg’s Old City or “Altstadt.” Then there’s the bächle – a system of narrow canals continuously flowing throughout the Altstadt with some combination of stormwater, surface water, and ground water along those brick and stone roads and walkways, then between, under, and through courtyards and buildings. The bächle also help cool the surrounding buildings and neighborhoods. Were these canals part of the same geothermal system that cools half of the Freiburg Uni campus? Although I’m sure they once also served as the city’s sanitary sewer, I was told there is no longer any sewage discharging into the canal system. In fact, the water looked clean. Parents let their kids play in the canals, and pet owners let their dogs drink from them. I wish I had learned more about how the bächle worked. Is it a complex system to operate and maintain year-round? and what is its role and relative effectiveness in managing stormwater and improving water quality? I’d be curious to know what sorts of things have been lost and found in the bowels of the system. I accidentally fumbled a map into a rapidly-flowing bächle and it quickly floated down the canal, dropping out of sight into a catch basin before I could retrieve it.

Flower gardens at the Anthropology Museum in Freiburg.

Flower gardens at the Anthropology Museum in Freiburg.

Landscaping and gardens. Freiburg, including the university’s campus, has several meticulously-maintained gardens, featuring manicured lawns and colorful flower beds around courtyards with statuary and fountains. In stark contrast, the landscape in other parts of Freiburg’s campus and city side streets was poorly maintained. Patches of lawn around many buildings had given way to tall weeds that looked untouched by a mower all summer. There were potholes, fallen debris, and overgrown hedges along the sidewalks. I’m not sure if this was a concession to budget cuts or a more natural approach to landscaping, or a little of both.

Friends of mine who are organic gardeners have eliminated or minimized lawn area in their yards. They add wildflower seeds to a meadow mix and extol the virtues of clover. By late-summer they end up with a lot of crabgrass but they’re content because they haven’t used herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. That kind of approach to landscape maintenance is a tough sell on college campuses.

Well-maintained, traditional landscaping at the entrance to the hospital on the Freiburg Uni medical school campus.

Well-maintained, traditional landscaping at the entrance to the hospital on the Freiburg Uni medical school campus.

UConn employs integrated pest management techniques on its lawns and landscaped gardens, and our newest classroom building features xeriscaping, bio-retention swales, a green roof, and even edible plants, like blueberry bushes. Like other campuses in colder climates, winter takes its toll on our landscaping, and a dry summer can turn our lawns brown in a few weeks, especially since we conserve potable water by limiting landscape irrigation to new plants, gardens, or turf. We’ll complete construction soon of a new centrally-located academic building, which includes a large underground cistern that will be used to collect rainwater for irrigating the lawn and gardens around one of our busier outdoor common areas, the Student Union quad.

A small section of the lush community garden plots I found on my way to Seepark -- there were micro-scale wind turbines on the roof of the building in the background.

A small section of the lush community garden plots I found on my way to Seepark — there were micro-scale wind turbines on the roof of the building in the background.

Farm-to-Table. Freiburgers value locally-grown food, locally-brewed beer, and local wines from area vineyards. Signs in an inner-city grocery store identified local dairy products and produce, which were fresh, relatively inexpensive, and very good. Every morning in the Altstadt’s central plaza, the Munsterplatz, a farmers’ market bustled under a dozen or so tents. On my bike ride to Seepark, I came across acres of community gardens divided by fences into small rectangular plots, some with elaborate sheds or makeshift greenhouses, and all very successfully growing everything from flowers to herbs and vegetables.

UConn has also embraced locally-grown food, which is sourced and promoted through Dining Services’ Local Routes program. Whitney is the original sustainable dining hall at UConn, and has specialized in, among other things, locally grown, organic, vegan, vegetarian, fair trade, free range, and rainforest alliance items. Small placards in Whitney tell diners where their food came from, like the honey from UConn’s apiary or veggies from the 1.4-acre Spring Valley Farm, cultivated by students living in two off-campus farmhouses that are part of UConn’s EcoHouse living and learning community.

Part of the local Farmers' Market held every morning in the Munsterplatz.

Part of the local Farmers’ Market held every morning in the Munsterplatz.

An evening festival held in the Munsterplatz featured local wineries and breweries.

An evening festival held in the Munsterplatz featured local wineries and breweries.

In the final analysis, it’s fair to say that I found more similarities than differences between Freiburg Uni and UConn, the two sister universities that partner for study abroad and other global exchange programs. Freiburg Uni benefits from being part of the greenest city in Germany. The investment the city has made in sustainable mass transit alone is mind-boggling, and the University community, like any other resident or visitor is, quite literally, “along for the ride.” Even though residents and officials in UConn’s hometown of Mansfield may be just as environmentally-minded and visionary as their Freiburg counterparts, they have small town resources and tend to rely on, and partner with, UConn for things like utility services for town, commercial, and residential buildings in and around Storrs. Consequently, UConn’s sustainability record has benefited from having to be more self-sufficient in managing its property and developing these kinds of basic programs and services for the University community. With the ownership, maintenance, and operation of 4,000 acres of land, a variety of research farms, a public transit system, a water supply system, a 25 MW cogeneration facility, and a sewage treatment plant, along with miles of underground and above ground distribution infrastructure, comes the ability for UConn to shape its own destiny and the opportunity – some would say obligation – to develop more holistic, integrated approaches to sustainability. Vielen dank, Freiburg for the ideas and inspiration!