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Bit by bit, blade by blade, NKU progresses toward its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050

No-mow zone, bike-sharing among initiatives
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 07:00:16-04

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- The grass isn’t necessarily greener at Northern Kentucky University, but it is a little taller.

The university announced this month it has dedicated nearly five acres at its Highland Heights campus as “no-mow zones,” where the land will be allowed to return to a natural state. While that may not seem like a big announcement from a major university, it is the latest measure the institution is taking to reach an ambitious goal: carbon neutrality by 2050.

“It’s another step in reducing our carbon footprint,” said NKU sustainability manager Tess Phinney. Daily activities such as electricity usage, transportation and even disposing of waste cause greenhouse gas emissions, which can have negative effects on the environment. Collectively, those emissions make up the carbon footprint of an individual or organization.

NKU is among the first in the region to designate “no-mow zones” for the purpose of reducing its carbon footprint and allowing native flora and fauna to return, Phinney said.

The zones are expected to decrease the use of fertilizers and gas-powered lawn mowers, create habitats for native species and help reduce soil erosion. And they add one more piece to the sustainability puzzle at NKU.

NKU’s Griffin Hall is one of its LEED-certified buildings on campus and has a number of sustainable building features, including a green roof. (Photo provided)

An interactive map on NKU’s website shows just how big that puzzle is becoming. Sustainability efforts include a longstanding recycling program; energy- and water-saving programs; rain gardens; a community garden and green roof; Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings; renewable energy sources; and alternative transportation options.

“We’re creating a culture of sustainability here,” she said. “There’s a lot happening all over campus.”

Phinney herself is a piece of the puzzle, hired as the university’s first full-time sustainability practitioner in 2015. One of her biggest projects to date: helping lead eforts to draft a sustainability strategy.

The five-year guiding document was released this year during Earth Week celebrations in April. It identifies six goals and various objectives and provides a timeline of sustainability efforts at NKU that dates back decades.

“Sustainability projects have been happening at NKU since it was founded in the 1970s,” Phinney said. “The sustainability strategy gives us direction and solidifies what we want to focus on.”

The document shows NKU is focused on environmental sustainability now more than ever. Momentum started in 2007 when the university became a signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Since then, NKU has completed five comprehensive inventories of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions, opened three LEED-certified buildings and created NKU Sustainability, a hub on campus for sustainability activities.

The past 10 years have also seen a surge in sustainability-related initiatives and a major uptick in student and faculty involvement and support.

One big area of focus has been alternative transportation. The reason: About one-third of NKU’s total emissions comes from single-occupancy commuters.

The university hopes to reduce those emissions by encouraging more students to live on campus and increasing participation in alternative transportation and ridesharing options, Phinney said.

Ten years ago, NKU entered into an agreement with TANK, which allows anyone with a university ID to access local bus routes for free. And on Earth Day 2016, NKU launched a new bike-share program featuring three hubs on campus; students can rent bikes for free in two-hour increments.

NKU senior Ron Brown said he sees more of the bikes rolling around campus.

“It seems like a lot more students are using them this year,” said Brown, an intern for NKU Sustainability. “It’s a successful program.”

NKU is seeing more participation in a variety of initiatives, he said, which is essential for creating a culture of sustainability.

NKU students check out bikes that are available for free rental as part of a campuswide commitment to sustainability. (Photo provided)

“It’s exciting to see everyone participate,” he said. “NKU has made a lot of progress.”

Visit the NKU website to check out an interactive map of sustainability-related locations or learn more about the sustainability strategy.