The campus ecovillage – leave it to the students

Trouble’s been a brewin’ in my idyllic little college town of Corvallis, Ore.

It’s the kind of trouble that I’ve seen before in the many college towns I’ve lived in. It’s trouble that can disrupt communities, destroy the fabric of neighborhoods, turn residents against each other and turn many of the townsfolk against the college, leaving a bitter legacy.

The trouble is caused by the propensity of colleges to grow, expanding their campuses or their student populations – or both – in ways that affect the surrounding town’s livability. The growth usually results in housing shortages; oversized, architecturally inferior student-apartment buildings jammed into charming old neighborhoods; traffic and parking hassles; unpopular annexations; and, ultimately, environmental degradation.

In Corvallis, for example, there are more college students than can be housed in the town, and the Oregon State University population is growing. Many townsfolk have asked why the students can’t be housed on the college campus, only to be told that students don’t like living in “dorms.”

The unspoken assumption in this discussion is that “dorms” can only be conceived of in the conventional way – as big buildings full of little cubicle-like rooms. The big buildings, of course, are isolated from the amenities of town living – shopping, entertainment, community.

But it’s possible to conceive of students living on campus in an entirely new way, living in housing that is an integral part of a larger system that’s theirs to partially manage, to study and to take pride in. This new campus could have so much appeal to the upcoming generations of students who will have to confront resource depletion and the global environmental crisis throughout their lifetimes, that they would fight for the chance to live and learn there.

Where would tomorrow’s students want to spend their college careers? In a campus ecovillage.

An ecovillage is a small community that is fairly self-contained. It is a community that, like an ecosystem, uses natural, onsite energy (think sunlight) to drive integral, closed-loop production, consumption and waste-recycling processes needed to maintain life in a given locale.

College campuses, which generally have open space and residence and dining facilities, and often have sparsely used, easily converted warehouses and other facilities, can easily evolve into ecovillages. For most campuses the transformation is just a matter of building on facilities and programs that are already in place.

For example, Oregon State has a new on-campus, co-generation power and heat plant which, although it runs on fossil fuels, can be converted to run on biofuels. It also has a new engineering building that conserves energy and captures and reuses rainwater. Money raised by a self-imposed student “sustainability fee” equipped the engineering building with a solar hot-water system.

Sustainability programs include an interdepartmental faculty sustainability group with its own website, an active Student Sustainability Initiative program that maintains a laboratory-style house and garden on the edge of campus, and a strong, overall campus commitment to recycling and other conservation activities.

All that’s needed to take the next steps toward becoming a true ecovillage is for the university to engage in a little creative visualization to redefine and reinvent itself.

How about closing some loops and having students sustainably growing a portion of the campus’ food supply on its hundreds of acres of open land? Can that food be processed on campus for college credit?

When it comes to recycling human waste, can students participate in the design, construction and operation of a “bioremediation” waste facility that processes the waste on campus so it can be reused as fertilizer?

Does that sound crazy? A waste bioremediation facility is operating on the Clatsop Community College campus in Astoria, Ore.

Meanwhile, those “dorms” could evolve into student-run facilities that are laboratories and models of sustainability and true social living centers that would make life on campus at least as attractive as it is in town. Could they have apartments (with kitchens) and small stores?

But enough said. For the best results, let’s leave it to our future world-class students to create their own campus ecovillage. Their prototype could serve as a model for the rest of our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore. Reach him at www.your-ecological-house.com.