Cal Poly Pomona has been an environmental leader for decades, from using recycled water in the 1960s to building a center for regenerative studies in 1994 that models and teaches best practices. A giant step came in 2009 when the university set an ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
Now, the campus is taking another major step by broadening its focus from carbon neutrality to environmental sustainability.
“While climate change is the most pressing issue of the 21st century with regards to the environment, it is not the only one,” says Kyle D. Brown, director of the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies and professor of landscape architecture. “We recently shifted our focus from exclusively focusing on climate change to looking at broader environmental sustainability issues, because we recognize that a lot of issues and opportunities were not being adequately addressed.”
Environmental issues encompass much more than air we breathe, the water we drink, the ground we stand on, and the plants we grow. Environmental sustainability literally applies to the world around us — including people, businesses, education and jobs.
Under a new Sustainability Task Force headed by Brown, the university will look into topics such as transportation and vehicle emissions, water consumption, food production, waste and recycling, and community service.
“Caring for the environment should be everyone’s responsibility,” says university President Michael Ortiz. “As a university, we have a responsibility to the global community to be models and leaders. We also have the resources to research innovative ideas, teach our students to be global citizens, and help advance sustainable practices in our communities.”
Ortiz hopes the task force will generate solutions that can be shared with the larger community, help raise awareness of environmental issues, and guide the campus toward its goal of carbon neutrality.
A recent meeting about transportation to and from Cal Poly Pomona perfectly illustrated one reason for the broader, more holistic perspective. Task force members started talking about single-passenger cars and the need for a new parking structure. But adding more spaces could send conflicting messages about the university’s environmental priorities. An idea: Spread out the class schedule to more evenings and weekends to relieve the demand for parking at peak periods. A consideration: Faculty are required to have a minimum number of office hours and days. Could email communication substitute for those in-person requirements? Another question: Could additional hybrid and online classes reduce the number of people driving to campus?
These are the types of questions that will require creative thinking, perhaps a shift in campus culture and operations, and partnering with outside organizations, Brown says.
Over the years, the campus’ commitment to the environment has earned high marks and recognition from organizations such as the Princeton Review and the Sierra Club. Most recently, the university earned a gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the premier organization for advancing sustainability on college campuses. Cal Poly Pomona was scored as the top CSU on the list and the third-highest university in California.
The gold rating from the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) program highlights the university’s success in several key areas, including facilities, education, research, dining, purchasing and transportation. It also includes areas that may not be considered directly related to the environment —community engagement, diversity, employee training and sustainable compensation — but that are beneficial for the overall health and sustainability of the campus and surrounding communities.
It’s reasonable to consider sustainable living as part of environmental sustainability, according to Professor Michael Millar, who leads Cal Poly Pomona’s Center for Community Engagement.
“Community service is about sustainability, whether it’s helping out on Pomona Beautification Day or working up at the Angeles Forest,” Millar says. “It’s about using service to incorporate your skills and education into making the community a better place. When you make the community a better place, you are making it more sustainable.”
Millar links the health of a university to its success in engaging the community and reaching its environmental goals.
“We encourage our students to learn to build reciprocal, two-way relationships with people and communities, where there is benefit flowing in both directions. When you’re doing it right, the total is greater than the sum of its parts,” Millar says. “We are enriched by that community as well. There’s no hierarchy. That’s what true health is about. It’s everyone helping each other, working with each other.”