Creating a sustainable campus

How a student-University partnership grew into the largest fund of its kind in Canada

Your friend has invited you to an event on campus. You walk in and are asked how you got to McGill that day, so that organizers can calculate the event’s carbon footprint using mc3gill.ca.

After making your way over to the refreshments table, you grab an apple that came from the Macdonald Campus Orchards and fill a reusable glass, supplied by Plate Club, with water.

As the presenter gathers attendees around for the start of the event, they announce that it has been certified a Gold-level McGill Sustainable Event.

While each project mentioned in this order of proceedings may not appear to have a direct link, each one, at one point or another, received funding from McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF).

The SPF, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in October, has come a long way since the landslide student referendum in which it was first approved. Now the largest fund of its kind in Canada, valued at $980,000 per year, the SPF has allocated a total of more than $8 million to support some 215 projects over the course of its first decade.

Principal Suzanne Fortier applauded the student-University partnerships at the heart of the SPF and emphasized the importance of the smaller actions, supported by the Fund, that contribute to real change on campus. “When you have a lot of tiny projects, it adds up and makes a difference,” Prof. Fortier said at the anniversary event. “It shows that we can all take part in this. We can all make a contribution.”

A culture of sustainability

At the outset, in 2009, the idea was simple: Promote a culture of sustainability across McGill by providing seed funding for grassroots sustainability projects that address everything from energy savings to social justice. (Each student would pay 50 cents per credit, which the administration would match dollar for dollar.) Members of the McGill community, including students, staff and faculty, would be welcome to apply for funding for their projects big and small.

“Students wanted to feel more engaged. Students wanted to feel like they were contributing to something,” recalls Jonathan Glencross, a McGill alumnus who played a key role in SPF’s creation during his student days a decade ago.

“They were paralyzed by writing essays about the Amazon 5,000 miles away and not having any skills to do anything about the situation. You had professors who felt paralyzed by the lack of attention and enthusiasm in their classrooms,” Glencross said. “Those two needs could be easily resolved by having meaningful projects scoped right here.”

McGill Feeding McGill

One of the SPF’s original projects, McGill Feeding McGill (MFM), has also proved to be one of its most emblematic successes.

MFM began in 2009, in the form of a question: Could the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Macdonald Campus Farm be used for more than teaching and research purposes – and actually supply McGill’s Food and Dining Services with fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables?

A decade later, the answer is a resounding “yes,” with the Mac Farm providing some 26,000 kg of fresh produce and 3,000 kg of beef to McGill residence cafeterias and dining halls annually, as well as 420 dozen eggs per week. Thirty minutes away from the downtown campus, Mac Farm grows a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, including apples, Asian pears, plums, melons, kale, garlic, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and bell peppers.

Produce that is transported from far-away places loses both nutrients and taste during the long haul in the back of a truck. By “eating locally” diners benefit from food that is both nutritionally sound and pleasing to the palate. As well, the short haul from Mac – especially when compared to produce being trucked in from the U.S., Mexico and countries further south – represents a significant reduction in McGill’s carbon footprint.

“Our chefs are excited to use the many different products during the season and our students are the beneficiaries of the freshest and highest quality food being served to them during the school year,” says Marisa Albanese, Director, Student Housing and Hospitality.

On top of seed funding to get MFM up and running in 2009, the SPF also supported the construction of a hydroponic greenhouse and a high tunnel greenhouse space. Resources from the SPF also helped pay for thousands of student work hours, technician hours, administrative hours, reusable plastic food grade bins, seeds and irrigation supplies, land and machinery rental fees.

New funding stream

With its next 10 years in mind, the SPF hopes to inspire community members to embed sustainability into their work and academic lives.

To that end, the SPF is launching a new funding stream focused on enabling large-scale, transformative projects that have the goal of making McGill’s campuses a greener, more sustainable, healthier place to work, study, and live.

The Big Wave stream supports projects requiring between $100,000 and $400,000 dollars.

While the SPF has supported large-scale projects in the past, such as the Gault Nature Reserve Community Access project, the Big Wave stream will now allow project teams to receive funding for the planning and design of their projects.

At the same time, the SPF is also looking to expand a few of its past popular projects: Gardens Inside 365, Hydroponic McGill, and the McGill Spin Bike Gardens.

While they all create small green spaces across McGill’s campuses, the indoor hydroponic garden towers at the heart of Gardens Inside 365 and Hydroponic McGill, and the spin bike zones that make up the Spin Bike Gardens, also further social sustainability.