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Seattle University


Greening the Hill

Written by Janice Murphy
July 16, 2012

I recently attended a meeting on a very ambitious initiative now emerging in SU's neighborhood: a Capitol Hill EcoDistrict. The meeting was convened by Capitol Hill Housing, which was formed in the 1970s to address housing inequities. CHH has received a grant from the Bullitt Foundation to take the lead in developing the concept of an EcoDistrict in the neighborhood.

In a nutshell, an EcoDistrict applies sustainability principles at a neighborhood scale. The goals of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, which are bold and far-reaching, touch on six "performance areas"-community, habitat, transportation, water, energy and materials. The EcoDistrict, for instance, seeks to achieve complete carbon neutrality by 2050, 30 percent tree canopy coverage by 2040 and a 15 million gallon per day reduction in water usage by 2030.

So what does this mean for SU?

Although our campus lies just south of the boundaries drawn for the EcoDistrict, I learned from an architect involved in the project that the map is meant to signify a general area, not a concrete border. Specific boundaries aside, there are many ways in which Seattle University's sustainability initiatives can and will mesh with what is being planned for the EcoDistrict. For one, Rob Schwartz, our associate vice president for Facilities Administration, is co-chair of the EcoDistrict committee that is spearheading this movement on Capitol Hill.

Seattle University has much to offer the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in the way of best practices and expertise. In many ways, we have created our own EcoDistrict. Our recycling program, energy efficiency, pesticide-free landscape maintenance, transportation incentives and many other sustainability-focused programs have led the way in our region and nation for decades.

One significant way SU can serve as a model for the EcoDistrict is our commitment to preserving campus green space. At the presentation, I was taken aback by how tiny a slice of Capitol Hill's area-just two percent-is comprised of parks and open spaces. Here at SU, we have a unique patch of earth, lush with welcoming sanctuaries for our campus community and neighbors. As SU gardener Becki Koukal-Liebe puts it: "There are no barriers here, language, cultural, economic. The grounds are perceived as a public garden, all are equal here."

Our Japanese Remembrance Garden and Vi Hilbert Ethnobotanical Garden offer a space for sharing cultural identities. Our emphasis on edible landscaping provides food right here where we live and work. Our rain gardens and wood chip-mulched beds absorb rainwater. The canopy cover of large evergreen and deciduous trees creates a cooling effect, diminishing the need for air conditioning in summer and providing a respite from the heat island effect of the surrounding asphalt and concrete. Composting done onsite of our pre-consumer food wastes with woody landscape trimmings and leaves eliminates truck transport of materials that we can then use to enhance our soil. Our extensive use of electric vehicles and low emission power equipment further reduces impact on the environment. And habitat is the soul of our gardens, playing a part in every choice we make in maintaining and improving our landscapes. From the innumerable microorganisms working beneath our feet to break down organic matter into humus to the Sawwhet owl roosting in the Silktassel tree at the north side of Garrand, this campus is a place of refuge for them as well, part of a corridor of open space so greatly needed in a densely urban region. Our connection to the Pollinator Pathway, though perhaps not widely known, contributes another vital ecological link. "The biodiversity here is rich for both plants and animals," says SU student Ian McCutcheon.

Aside from sharing our institutional expertise with our neighbors, I am also optimistic that an official designation of our neighborhood as an EcoDistrict will reinforce our university's commitment to sustainability, inform our decisions about change and development on our own campus, and push us to a deeper level of commitment to greening our campus and finding the funds to make that possible. As one of the panelists, Llewellyn Wells, president of Living City Block, reminded us, "When it comes down to it, the most sustainable thing we can do is work with what's already there."

Janice Murphy is integrated pest management coordinator and an occasional contributor to The Commons.