Garden of Ideas

UAB becomes a creative proving ground for sustainability
By Charles Buchanan • Photos by Steve Wood and Julie Price • Infographic by Ron Gamble
Garden of Ideas
UAB becomes a creative proving ground for sustainability
By Charles Buchanan • Photos by Steve Wood and Julie Price • Infographic by Ron Gamble

Julie Price, Ph.D., will admit that her mind has been in the gutter lately. She’s figuring out how to funnel the abundant rain that falls upon UAB and repurpose it for watering campus green spaces.

“It doesn’t make sense to spend time and money to clean water for drinking and then throw it out on the lawn,” says Price (pictured above), appointed UAB’s inaugural sustainability coordinator in 2013. “We’re taking a different stance and treating stormwater like a resource.”

She also intends to maximize UAB’s other natural resources—namely, the bright ideas of its students and employees and the power of its research—to make UAB a greener, more efficient university. The results could ripple out into Birmingham as well, inspiring changes that lead to a more livable community for everyone to enjoy.

Scientist, Teacher, Collector

Price, a Kentucky native and UAB alumna, originally came to Birmingham to study how vegetation on campus roofs affects energy and water use. Today, she’s out to prove that sustainability is more than recycling or switching off lights when you leave a room, and that the benefits go far beyond the bottom line and good public relations.

Her role, she says, is to collect, suggest, test, and promote innovative ideas—much like any other UAB instructor and researcher. In fact, she maintains a dual appointment with Facilities and the Department of Biology, where she teaches environmental science and conducts studies on the feasibility of UAB’s sustainability initiatives. “It’s a unique position,” she says. “We want to maintain this crossover so that we learn from our new projects and share that knowledge.”

Take, for example, the stormwater idea. UAB’s new freshman residence hall, now under construction with a 2015 completion date, will feature a rainwater collection system for irrigating the surrounding grounds. “We’re going to meter the system and determine its payback period,” Price says. “We’ll also have educational signage so that students know what we’re doing.” If the trial is successful, stormwater mitigation systems could pop up on buildings and greenways across UAB.

Other future initiatives may include composting, which would turn waste from UAB’s restaurants, labs, and grounds into rich fertilizer and reduce the amount of trash heading for landfills. Solar panels are another possibility. The popular recycling program could also expand. “Eventually, we want all UAB containers to have options for paper, aluminum, plastic, and trash,” Price says. At the least, “we want every office to have a deskside recycling can. Paper is the biggest recyclable component of our waste stream, and it can pay for our recycling program if we capture more of it.

“There’s a lot of excitement in my job, and if one project out of 10 goes through, then we’re successful,” Price says. “Trying something, learning from it, and being an example to the community is a win in my eyes.”

>UAB students cleaning algae from Railroad Park streambedsUAB students help spread the sustainability message into the community through service-learning initiatives.

Course of Action

Price’s passion and energy have received enthusiastic responses across UAB—though the students attending the first session of her core curriculum course, Human Populations and the Earth’s Environment, are often her toughest audience. However, Price quickly shows the students—a mix of majors from art to accounting to education—how sustainability issues weave throughout their lives and careers. “It’s topical,” she says. “We’ll talk about tap water versus bottled water and the effects of choosing one over the other. We’ll look at pictures of China, where people wear masks every day because of the pollution.”

The students take action themselves through community service learning projects. Last year, they removed algae from Railroad Park streambeds to improve water quality (pictured above) and cut invasive plant species at Red Mountain Park. “It’s manual labor, but they see the direct implications of land and water use and reclamation,” Price says. The students are eager to get involved, with many discovering the enthusiasm they lacked at first, Price says. Some have even found internships or jobs from contacts they made during service learning. “I get e-mails from students months later talking about recycling, so whether or not they’re changing any behaviors, at least they’re informed citizens thinking about how we live and use resources,” Price notes. “That’s my goal.”

Now Price and other faculty are brainstorming ways to integrate sustainability lessons throughout the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, from business to medicine to engineering. The academic angle is key because sustainability has become a hot topic in every career, she says. “A Spanish class could write and translate a recycling brochure, for example,” Price explains. “That’s how they could learn about both topics.” In addition, “we would be silly to send engineers out into the world not knowing what we’re doing at UAB for water and energy efficiency. They will be designing those systems in the future.” This fall, the UAB Honors College will offer a freshman sustainability seminar that includes service learning. One idea is to have the students design a marketing campaign for UAB’s Blazer Express bus system. “Most students are not accustomed to using mass transit,” Price says. “So first, they have to understand why mass transit is helpful; then they have to figure out how to appeal to their target audience.”

Cash for Creativity

Students have plenty of their own inventive ideas about sustainability, of course, and a new crowdsourcing initiative could bring some of them to life on campus. The Sustainability Investment Fund, created by UAB Student Life, will reward the most clever concepts; students have the potential to receive funding to implement their proposed project with UAB’s assistance. In their applications, students must describe their ideas and how they would realize them, and explain the cost and an educational component. A campuswide committee of students, faculty, and staff will select the winners and determine how much money they will receive.

Price anticipates a wide-ranging variety of ideas rolling in from students. “The possibilities are endless,” she says. “It’s going to be so much fun and will help them take ownership in UAB.”

Price also is helping her fellow scientists discover new funding sources by identifying elements of sustainability in their work that they might not have recognized. A study examining the effects of air pollution on population health would count—as would business research into streamlining industrial distribution chains, which would preserve resources, she says. Several UAB researchers also vigorously pursue initiatives in social sustainability, covering initiatives that promote a healthy population with access to health care and a reliable, nutritious food supply. “I want to help UAB researchers amplify sustainability in their projects by connecting them with the resources and partners they need on campus and in the community,” Price says.

Impact on Birmingham

What happens at UAB doesn’t stay at UAB. Rain falling on campus runs through Birmingham’s sewer system. Every flick of a switch adds to UAB’s status as the Southeast’s second largest power user, a ranking that results from UAB’s square footage and environmental requirements for its clinics and labs. Tens of thousands of people move in and around the university, which is Alabama’s largest single-site employer, every day.

Likewise, UAB’s efforts to reduce its ecological footprint could reverberate throughout the community, state, and region, Price says. “What we do well can make a big difference. We have the power to institute real change.” (See box below for a list of UAB sustainability milestones.)

Water quality offers a prime example. By diverting and reusing stormwater, UAB can reduce the strain on an aging sewer system and ultimately help protect the biodiversity of the Black Warrior River—and the water supply for part of the metropolitan area and communities downstream. Price and UAB Facilities are working closely with Birmingham city planners to align their efforts where they overlap. “With our shared space, it’s important that we team with the city to develop land thoughtfully,” Price says. “There are a million ways we could collaborate.”

And while the old Hill University Center may have vanished in a cloud of dust last year, its brick and concrete live on, crushed and reused for the beds of new roads. “When we ask vendors to bid on demolition projects, we can suggest that they have a plan to recycle pieces of the building,” Price says. “We can have a ripple effect on the companies that provide us with services and materials.”

Ultimately, UAB could make its largest impact as the proving ground for the innovative ideas that Price and her colleagues are collecting, implementing, and testing. “We have imaginative and novel projects under way here,” she says. “If we try out new ways of doing things, and people see them in action and know that they’re successful, then they’re more likely to try sustainable solutions as well. We want to lead by example.”

List of sustainability milestones at UAB