Seeds of Change
UML Sustainability Mission Reaches Beyond the University
When one thinks of a college campus in the middle of a congested city, a rooftop farm, community gardens and a CSA program aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind. Unless, that is, you’re thinking about the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where sustainability is one of the administration’s top priorities.
UMass Lowell Director of Sustainability Ruairi (pronounced “Rory”) O’Mahony and his office spearhead a multitude of initiatives designed to bring sustainable practices to all areas of the campus, from buildings and grounds to dining services and energy use.
O’Mahony and his staff are also committed to taking those practices outside of the university walls by forging partnerships throughout the city.
This approach to looking outward was a clear goal of Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney when she took office in 2015.
With about 18,000 students and a 142-acre campus, the university is invested in the community, O’Mahony says. His office coordinates and oversees more than a dozen partnerships with organizations around Lowell and the Merrimack Valley. Its largest collaboration is with Mill City Grows, the Lowell nonprofit that seeks to make healthy, fresh food more accessible to area residents. Together, the university and Mill City Grows operate community gardens and a greenhouse urban farm to raise seedlings for distribution throughout Lowell. Last year, UMass Lowell also hosted a farmers market with local vendors and offered its own CSA program. The 1,800-square-foot greenhouse is rich in learning opportunities for students and a site for academic research as well. Students and faculty work there to develop new methods to grow produce.
“It’s something we’re incredibly proud of,” O’Mahony says. “A vast majority of the [plants and herbs] on tables across the city come from here.”
A university-operated S.E.E.D. (Sustainability Engagement and Enrichment Development) Fund provides money for environmentally friendly green projects, which have included making campus facilities energy efficient, reducing the amount of waste on campus, and integrating more sustainable practices into teaching. A student fee, paid each semester, goes into the fund.
The greenhouse is named for Brian and Kim Rist, benefactors who last year donated $5 million, the largest single donation in its history, to UML. Much of that money will be used for the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, which will bring together all of UMass Lowell’s sustainable efforts while creating more classroom and real-world learning opportunities.
UMass students are invested in sustainable practices and look for ways to make an impact, O’Mahony says. They constantly share innovative ideas on how to improve the campus, and also spearhead tasks such as finding ways to reuse furniture or stem the growth of Japanese knotweed, an invasive species that threatens native plants.
In February, UML commitment to Lowell reached yet another level when the university and city formed a new Green Community Partnership, described as an “alliance to provide leadership, resources and expertise for sustainability initiatives throughout Greater Lowell.”
Moloney and City Manager Eileen Donoghue came up with the idea for the program and will head the Green Community Commission, which includes a mix of community and environmental leaders as well as businesspeople. With the partnership, Moloney and Donoghue launched a new sustainability grant program. This program is being funded by a donation from philanthropist Nancy Donahue, matched by community partners, that will be used for joint university/community sustainability projects.
Those programs and initiatives highlight the difference between UMass Lowell and other colleges, O’Mahony says. While other universities have sustainability departments, they tend to focus on recycling and other on-campus programs.
“We’re not just following others,” he says. “We have a real opportunity to do work within the city.”
At UMass Lowell, administrators, faculty, staff and students aren’t just pontificating about problems and issues facing the environment but are trying to solve them.
“We are out there front and center,” O’Mahony says. “Ultimately we want to find real solutions to make lives better in Lowell and the Merrimack Valley.”
O’Mahony says his department is fortunate to have the full support of the chancellor and executive cabinet, for whom sustainability practices are a top priority, and to have forged strong partnerships with community members.
The university’s deep commitment to sustainability drew senior Emily Wood to transfer to UMass Lowell from the University of Hartford.
Now she works in the Office of Sustainability, where she helped to coordinate last year’s farmers market and the CSA farm share. Both programs are thriving, and she hopes to expand them this spring. She’s also working on bringing beehives to campus.
Wood, 21, says she is constantly approached by peers who want to learn more about how the campus practices sustainability and new projects that are in the works.
“It’s a true priority,” she tells them. “You see it everywhere on campus.”
UMass Lowell – A Sustainability University
- Top STARS rating among all colleges and universities in Massachusetts by AASHE, the association for the advancement of sustainability in higher education
- $1.2 million in annual energy savings
- 1.7 million fewer gallons of water used each year
- Eliminating 9 million fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year
- Addressing over $10 million in deferred maintenance across the campus
- In the last five years alone, faculty has brought in $30 million in energy, environment and sustainability related research
- 40,000 seedlings from the Urban Agriculture Program provide high-quality organic produce to the most food-insecure city residents through the Mill City Grows partnership.
- Compost program uses dining hall food waste to keep campus lawns green
- Dozens of sheep and goats to sustainably “mow” several large, steep inclines around campus and cost half the price of a mowing contractor.
— Information provided by UMass Lowell