Close your eyes and imagine McGill in 2040. What do you see?
Resilient plant species blanket the lower field, their dense root systems enhancing soil permeability and improving the campuses’ rainwater management. Sitting areas made of carbon-sequestering materials line walkways, inviting students to pause between classes and watch staff gardeners tend their plots—the urban agriculture enhancing the community’s connection to local food systems. Multi-stream waste bins always near make it easy to keep our spaces free of landfill materials.
These visions, embedded in the recently launched McGill University Climate & Sustainability Strategy 2020-2025, were conceptualized largely by McGill students during internships with the McGill Office of Sustainability.
Launched on Dec. 10, the Climate & Sustainability Strategy aims to guide the University to 2025 and align with the latest in climate science. From start to finish—from consultation to publication—the Climate & Sustainability Strategy was shaped by student contributions.
Pursuing a priority
In her role as Sustainability Strategy Intern, recent graduate Erin Wen worked closely with the Office of Sustainability staff through the planning, consultation, and drafting phases. This experience, she said, was “as if I was working my way up within the hierarchy of McGill, as I moved from student-led projects to contributing to a higher level, all-encompassing document.”
Sustainability was a priority of Wen’s prior to her arrival at McGill. She was first introduced to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while in high school and sought then to learn more about how the three pillars of sustainability—environmental, economic, and social—are intertwined. Her studies in Geography—"an inherently interdisciplinary field,” according to Wen—at McGill allowed her to continue learning “about how the human and physical spheres interact at different scales and how problems can be compounded through different feedbacks and relationships.”
Throughout her degree, Wen complemented her studies by joining and eventually acting as president of MealCare McGill, a student group that works to divert food waste and reduce food insecurity by collecting and redistributing leftovers to local homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Wen was also a Sustainable Event Consultant, volunteering with the Office of Sustainability to guide McGill event planners on sustainable best practices.
Leading the way
“I think student involvement pushed the content of the Strategy to become more ambitious,” Wen says.
“Each year throughout my undergrad, I witnessed more student-led initiatives begin while the student body became more vocal with regard to sustainability and climate change on campus,” she says. “I truly believe that students are leading the way in McGill’s sustainability movement.”
During the public consultation process, which began in March 2020, students made up the largest portion of respondents, Wen says. “They provided the most critical, as well as aspirational, feedback.”
Like many around that time, Wen was faced with the added challenge of adapting to remote studying and working.
“Adapting to virtual consultations was exciting because I had the opportunity to exercise my creativity and research skills!” Wen says. “From the get-go I was eager to hear or read what the community had to say, but the virtual consultations granted more flexibility, variety, and anonymity for respondents.”
“This experience definitely made me think more about accessibility,” she continued. “I thought more about who we were able to reach and how community members could reach us as people were moving around the world to different time zones with different technological capacities.”
Once Wen’s work was done, Architecture students Fabrice Grenier-Arellano and Sahil Adnan stepped in to visualize the objectives and actions embedded in the document. Grenier-Arellano explained that he and Adnan were guided through the contents of the Strategy by Office of Sustainability staff and were then able to tap into the expertise of other members of the McGill community to fully conceptualize the physical impact of McGill’s sustainability commitments.
“Working on the Strategy with the McGill Office of Sustainability complemented my studies greatly,” says Grenier-Arellano. “Being on the internship and working [on] how to implement sustainable features, like permeable surfaces and urban agriculture and green renewable energy—all these ideas surrounding the built environment and sustainability—really impacted my thoughts and my process and have been working their way to my academic proposal this semester.”
As with Wen, sustainability has been a cornerstone of Grenier-Arellano’s experience at McGill. He was a part of the group of McGill and Concordia students who travelled to China to compete in the 2018 Solar Decathlon, in which they built a prize-winning solar-powered house.
“Studying architecture now, I try to inform my design decisions with environmental and social sustainability, and working with the McGill Office of Sustainability has shown me that I could not only learn about these wonderful commitments that McGill is making, but that I can be a part of that process, which is always really so rewarding,” Grenier-Arellano says.
Designing the document
Beyond developing the Strategy’s contents, McGill students also played key roles in packaging and illustrating the material. Graphic Design intern Roelle Santa Maria designed the 60-page document, using photographs from Multimedia intern Benjamin Joppke, while Samantha Ling, communications intern, assisted with the communications campaign.
“I think it’s great that we as students can be a part of these sustainable commitments and somehow [make] a contribution to the betterment of our campus,” Grenier-Arellano says.
I think it’s also a great experience for our future careers … This is definitely a great precedence for what we can do in the field in whichever industry we work in.”
And with the planning now behind us, Wen knows the real work—turning the concepts into reality—has just begun.
“My hope is that students will continue to contribute to reaching the Strategy’s goals, while also continuing to voice and amplify their constructive criticism and innovative ideas to push the boundaries of what can be done in the coming years.”
Kelsey Litwin is Communications Officer in the McGill Office of Sustainability