Universities with an environmental mission

I recently had the opportunity to visit Israel for the first time and to experience the very different culture, climate, geography and politics in the country. I was there speaking on behalf of the University of Nottingham at the invitation of the Green Campus network active in Israel to speak at their conference at of the Nagev.

Beersheba is a mystical-sounding desert city that has developed massively in the past decade or so. My knowledge of it was limited prior to the visit but what became clear to me very quickly was the strategic importance placed on it by Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion.

Only through a united effort by the state … by a people ready for a great voluntary effort, by a youth bold in spirit and inspired by creative heroism, by scientists liberated by the bonds of conventional thought and capable of probing deep into the special problems of this country … we can succeed in carrying out the great and fateful task of developing the south and the Negev – Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion

As the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel, it is often referred to as the ‘capital of the Negev’ and is the centre of the country’s fourth most populous metropolitan area with a population of more than 200,000 people. It’s around a 90 minute drive from Tel Aviv which, by Israel’s standards, is some distance in a country of less than eight million living in around 40% of the land space.

While the development of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem has come about because of their geography as port cities and their religious and historical importance, Beersheba has needed more deliberate investment. The Blueprint Nagev project includes the Beersheba River Walk, a 900-acre riverfront district with green spaces, hiking trails, a 3,000-seat sports hall, a 15-acre boating lake filled with recycled waste water, promenades, restaurants, cafés, galleries, boat rentals, a 12,000-seat amphitheatre, playgrounds and a bridge along the route of the city’s Mekorot water pipes.

The plans include building new homes overlooking the park and neighbourhood and four new shopping malls. The first, Kanyon Beersheba, will be a 115,000m2 ecologically planned mall with pools for collecting rainwater and lighting generated by solar panels on the roof. It will be situated next to an 8,000m2 park with bicycle paths. Another mall will be a farmers’ market, the first ever in Israel. It will be an enclosed, circular complex with 400 spaces for vendors, and it will be surrounded by parks and greenery.

In recent years, some $10.5m has been invested in renovating Beersheba’s Old City, preserving historical buildings and upgrading infrastructure. The Turkish Quarter is also being redeveloped with newly cobbled streets, widened sidewalks and the restoration of Turkish homes into areas for dining and shopping.

Today, the city is undergoing a major construction boom, which includes both development of urban design elements, such as water fountains and bridges, and environmental development such as playgrounds and parks.

A considerable part of the city’s regeneration plan rests on the university named after Ben-Gurion himself. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev aspires to be among the best inter-disciplinary research universities in the world, a leader in scientific innovation, inter-disciplinary research and applied sciences – all of which impact daily life. It is committed to social and environmental responsibility and is working to develop the Negev, Israel and the world. As one of Israel’s leading research universities it has around 20,000 students and 4,000 faculty members. More than 100,000 alumni play important roles in all areas of research and development, industry, health care, the economy, society, culture and education in Israel.

What struck me was the pace of development and the important regeneration benefits the university brought to otherwise deprived areas of the city. While there was high-end development in the biotech disciplines, there was also massive infrastructure projects such as the relocation of the rail station to serve both the university and the forthcoming technology park on the other side of the rail line.

But it isn’t all about buildings – it has put people in its local community at heart and is a university with a conscience, where high standards of research are integrated with community involvement. The community action department brings the university into the heart of disadvantaged neighbourhoods while outreach programmes make higher education accessible to all the residents of the region.

I heard about a great project where students of the university can live rent free in one of 70 university-owned properties across the city if they commit to give eight hours a week of their time to community projects. These included dance classes, homework work support and community cooking. Alongside that the university is committed, like Technion University in Haifa, to allowing its students to train guide dogs across campus and it’s not unusual to see them in lecture theatres and cafes. Also, there are now more than 500 Bedouin students – over half of them women – at the university thanks to outreach and retention programmes spearheaded by the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development.

Leaving the desert and heading west along an increasingly green corridor towards the coast, via Tel Aviv, towards Haifa I came to Technion University which sits among the northern reaches of the Mount Carmel. It’s an extensive campus with impressive civil engineering and architecture that makes a coherent and accessible campus across the terracing of the mountain. In any other city it might be considered a real attraction but it sits not far from the hugely impressive Baha’i Gardens overlooking the sea with immaculate gardens tended by an army of devoted volunteers. On the slopes of Mount Carmel it’s certainly an impressive view towards the coast.

Technion University vies for the status of Israel’s oldest university with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a young country, Israel needed the skills and expertise of technical engineering, architecture, and development. It needed people with the skills to create the infrastructure to support the early years of the country. Roads, buildings, power, water, shipping and transport routes all needed a skills set that Israel lacked. Ben-Gurion’s response was to invest in a technical university to bring those skills and accelerate their deployment.

The Hebrew University – home to extensive correspondence from, and to, Albert Einstein, who was a frequent visitor – contributes to its city in a different way. Unlike Haifa and Beersheba, Jerusalem would still be its own city if its universities left. It’s not, in any way, a university town. But not because its universities are insignificant. Quite the opposite in fact – but what happens beyond the security fences and turnstiles feels a million miles from the hubbub and rush of the city. The university has created a green lung in the city providing space for biodiversity, urban cooling, run-off suppression and spaces that people can enjoy. Its sheer mass of numbers, around 24,000 staff and students, create demand for services and pressure on infrastructure. It was great, then, to see investment in a light rail extension that will connect the city centre, its two main teaching campuses for science/engineering and humanities, and the Government Quarter.

Having visited all three universities in the space of just under four days, it would be easy to make assumptions. But I saw three universities who viewed social, economic and environmental contributions to their local, regional and national communities as important and central to their mission. While there are many questions still to be answered in Israel, there are some shining examples of good practice too.

Photo by heatkernel

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Andy Nolan

Andy Nolan

Andy Nolan is director of sustainability at the University of Nottingham. He is writing in a personal capacity. https://aardvarknoseface.wordpress.com | @andynolanEJ

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