Campus Sustainability at Iowa's Public Universities

Iowa’s public universities participate in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) program. Committed to a sustainable future through academics and research, the Regents institutions apply campus sustainability practices throughout their general operations plans and report noteworthy environmental projects to the Board of Regents through the yearly campus sustainability report.

At the June Board of Regents meeting, the campus sustainability report will spotlight numerous ongoing projects designed to improve campus sustainability at Iowa’s public universities. Three are outlined below.

UI Ashton Research Prairie: A Living Classroom and Laboratory
The Ashton Research Prairie Living Laboratory (APLL) is a prairie restoration project located at the site of the Ashton Cross Country Course on campus at UI. It is a collaborative effort between the office of sustainability and the environment, athletics, environmental sciences and numerous faculty. The project uses biogeographically referenced plant seeds to assure that the prairie species in this reconstruction are native to Johnson County, Iowa. The project aims to return the site to a state more akin to what it was prior to the 1840s, when Iowa was covered in native grasses and wildflowers.

“The Ashton Prairie Living Laboratory collaboration with UI Athletics and more than 20 faculty allows our students to engage in systems-based research right here on campus,” said Stratis Giannakouros, director of the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment. “The new APLL will provide students from a range of disciplines and backgrounds an integrated understanding of environmental processes from the deep bedrock to the soil to the upper atmosphere.”

UNI Dry Run Creek: Helping the Watershed
The two branches of Dry Run Creek that flank each edge of the UNI campus currently are listed as “impaired” by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The University is committed to improving these branches and the watershed as a whole through the implementation of storm water best management practices on campus infrastructure projects. Through initiatives such as soil quality restoration, green roofs and porous asphalt, UNI’s ongoing best management practices equate to more than 61 million gallons of storm water treated annually. 

For example, the recently repaved Gilchrist Hall parking lot incorporated the use of pervious asphalt, which allows storm water to penetrate its surface and drain through naturally, rather than being routed to storm drains. The estimated volume of storm water treated on this parking lot alone is more than 700,000 gallons annually. The Gilchrist Hall lot is one of many lots across campus that has been configured with water quality in mind.

“It’s important for UNI to lead by example,” said Eric O’Brien, UNI University Sustainability Coordinator. “The university is unusual in that we have a lot of different practices. We’ve been testing a variety of different materials in parking lots for many years. People from around the state come to see our different installations and hopefully learn what can work best for them.”

ISU Carbon Removal: Collaboration with Campus
The ISU Bioeconomy Institute (BEI) has engaged the campus community in an effort to increase understanding, research and collaboration on opportunities to use agriculture to help mitigate climate change. BEI is partnering with numerous colleges on campus, in addition to local, state and national agencies to deliver a statewide carbon assessment report, biweekly virtual lunch discussions with carbon reduction experts, carbon reduction leadership workshops and internship program opportunities for students to focus on carbon reduction and mitigation. 

“This is a great project to highlight because it brings together students, faculty and staff on campus to look at understanding how we can be a collaborative part of the solution to climate change,” said Merry Rankin, director of sustainability at ISU. “These efforts empower us to engage communities beyond campus to find collaborative solutions.”