UBC is breaking new ground in sustainability – both figuratively and literally. On January 27, President Stephen Toope announced the creation of an ambitious sustainability initiative at  UBC’s Vancouver campus that will promote and unite sustainability efforts in teaching and learning, research and campus operations.

“UBC is today moving to the next level in sustainability leadership,” said Prof. Toope in an email to the UBC community. “A strategic management group will integrate sustainability initiatives on UBC’s Vancouver campus under the leadership of Prof. John Robinson, the Executive Director of the new UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI).” 

Prof. Robinson’s USI team has immediately begun to take shape, with a key goal to bring diverse groups of researchers, teachers and campus leaders in contact with each other, and to provide a central hub on the Vancouver campus for sustainability work. 

“I am very happy about this new announcement and the opportunities I believe it will create for all of us who are involved in sustainability work at UBC,” said Prof. John Robinson, a faculty member in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and in the Department of Geography. “There will be busy months ahead as we build the team and begin to build deeper engagement with community on and off campus.”

The new Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability (CIRS), currently under construction and scheduled to open in spring 2011, will be the home of the USI. Designed to be among North America’s greenest buildings, CIRS will be a focal point for sustainability research, teaching and operational activities and partnerships.

Key Themes

UBC is an acknowledged leader in campus sustainability and is increasingly recognized as a hub for discussion and research on many wider aspects of sustainability, including resource conservation, habitat preservation, climate change, social equity and economic resiliency. The USI will coordinate and integrate UBC’s numerous sustainability initiatives across all branches of university activity. 

While sustainability is a topic of growing interest to students, faculty, staff and community partners, there are many different views of how best to define the concept. Most accepted definitions include an understanding that we must live within the planet’s biophysical carrying capacity, we must provide systems of governance that promote and protect the values we want to live by, and we must provide an adequate standard of living for all.

Acknowledging the fundamentally interdisciplinary and cross-cutting nature of sustainability, the USI will explore two key themes. The “Campus as a Living Laboratory” theme focuses internally to build on existing UBC initiatives that advance operational sustainability. The campus provides powerful opportunities to explore, test and demonstrate sustainability solutions: “living laboratories” in which students, faculty, staff and community work together to discover, learn and take action to guide UBC toward sustainability.

The second theme, “The University as an Agent of Change,” explores UBC’s role beyond campus. Universities are strongly connected in various ways to civil society, business and government, both locally and globally. UBC provides a natural hub that enables these groups to partner and participate in the search for ideas and solutions that are instrumental to reinforcing the fabric of global society.

Sustainability Strategy

A world-renowned expert in sustainability, Prof. Robinson took a coordinating role in developing the UBC Sustainability Academic Strategy, a key report presented to UBC’s executive team in October 2009. Among the report’s findings was a strong recommendation that UBC move to integrate sustainability teaching, research and operations. The SAS Working Group included staff, faculty and students from UBC’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, as well as external community representatives. The report’s findings and recommendations were based on information gathered at two public Town Hall meetings, and from research and teaching inventories, roundtable discussions with key stakeholders, and community engagement.

Building upon those SAS recommendations, the USI will consist of three offices that will work
together in a highly collaborative and integrated way: Teaching and Learning, Research and Partnerships, and Campus Sustainability.

“The creation of the USI is the direct result of the work of many people who have given their time and insight to create the vision which will shape the direction of our sustainability work at UBC into the future,” said Prof. Robinson.