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Students, professors question the sustainability of planned graduate student housing in the forest

Despite the project’s sustainability goals, several environmental professors and graduate students still oppose Duke’s plan announced last month to potentially build new graduate student housing off of West Campus.

The proposed plan, created in response to the increasing cost of housing in Durham, involves building apartments in the woods south of Towerview Road, east of Erwin Road and west of the Fuqua School of Business. During the Board of Trustees meeting, director of project management Paul Manning said that this location would be most convenient for graduate students as it was in close proximity to Fuqua, the Law School and the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Manning wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Duke evaluated several sites before choosing their current selection. Three committees, two of which included graduate students, also reviewed and approved the selected site, and the Graduate School had voiced its support for the project.

He emphasized that the goal of the plan is “to preserve Duke’s natural landscapes,” which includes both protecting trees during construction as well as removing non-native species and re-planting native species. He wrote that the project will provide not only “new sustainable greenspace” but also housing for graduate students.

However, certain Duke’s conservation, biology and environmental science professors did not agree with the University’s choice of location for the new housing.

Paul Manos, professor in the department of biology, said that the plan is “tremendously short-sighted” and if Duke is trying to promote green spaces, this plan would not be the right direction.

“But I guess we're at a point where the green space at Duke is being looked at from many different stakeholders,” he said. “And I wonder whether there's really any contact with people who care about the ideas of sustainability.”

He argued that beyond aesthetics, green space also provides a critical environmental role.

Nicolette Cagle, lecturer in environmental science and policy in the Nicholas School of the Environment, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that she does not support the plan, emphasizing that green space provides teaching space and ecosystem values such as water filtration, air pollution capture and ambient cooling. 

Associate Professor of Biology Will Wilson added that removing green space and adding cement and asphalt structures heats up surfaces, creating an “urban heat island” around the area.

“So that’s why we get this 10 degrees Fahrenheit urban heat island, which you see in downtown Durham, for example,” he said. 

Manos added that without green landscapes helping to control temperatures, more energy is needed to cool buildings.

The particular forests that would be affected have also been used for teaching courses, Manos said. Not only that, but Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology, explained that nature improves people’s moods.

“Among the many technical responses, an increasing body of work shows that people are happier and perform better when surrounded by nature than by concrete,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Cagle wrote that Duke should instead “make better use of already developed spaces, especially on Central Campus, and maintain the natural areas that we have.” Manos agreed, wondering why Duke decided not to reuse the already paved space on Central Campus for graduate housing.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Chronicle that Duke was unlikely to build graduate housing on Central. 

“It’s probably not the best, the highest use for that land,” he said.

Schoenfeld added that the University has been interested over the years in providing more graduate student housing, and the location in the forest was probably the best on campus.

In its report, the Board of Trustees Future of Central Campus task force noted that needs such as student housing “have the potential to be served elsewhere on or off-campus.”

The sentiment that there are other or additional options that Duke could consider exists amongst even graduate students. Anita Simha, first-year biology graduate student, approached the issue with skepticism, saying that Duke has boiled the choice down to "either building [apartments] and having affordable housing or not building [anything.]" 

She said that in reality, Duke, as a huge landowner in Durham, has the power to make numerous, connected choices—not just this one.

“If we're looking at grad student housing in isolation, I definitely support grad students having low cost options,” Simha said. “But I also think that grad students, long-term Durham residents who are facing gentrification, environmentally-conscious people and people who would rather not cut down trees are actually kind of all on the same team [in] struggling with the powers at Duke.”

She said that Duke could instead choose to pay all their graduate students a living wage, or it could also choose to support low-cost public transportation such as the light rail. Wilson and Austin Wadle, second-year Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, agreed with Simha. 

“If there were a rail line, grad students would have had plenty of housing opportunities along that corridor,” Wilson wrote in an email.

Usaid Awan, a doctoral candidate in economics, told The Chronicle that new apartments would show that Duke cares about graduate student housing, and he appreciated that the University was looking into it.

Manning also wrote in an October email to The Chronicle that the apartments will prioritize sustainability, as they would be constructed from the trees that they replace. Timothy Johnson, associate professor of the practice in energy and the environment, emphasized that the buildings would follow LEED standards for energy use and use less energy than Duke’s current policy. 

Wadle noted that although these certifications are good, they are often “very marginal in their impact” and should be the baseline for constructing buildings. Pimm wrote that though the buildings should be energy efficient, these LEED certifications are “mostly for bragging rights for administrators.”

All four professors The Chronicle interviewed disapproved of Duke’s patterns in expansion, development and environmental interactions. 

Pimm wrote that the project “smacks” of Duke’s consistent indifference to environmental concerns, “most clearly seen in its commitment to fossil fuels as an energy source and the companies that produce them as investments.”

They expressed concern that the campus was turning more and more into a concrete, urban landscape and less and less of a pleasant, positive green space-oriented environment.

“It’s becoming an urban campus. I guess that's what they want and it generates more revenue, but 100 years from now, 200 years from now, is there going to be any space devoted for forest?” Wilson asked. “What does sustainable mean for the future? The answer for Duke appears to be that sustainable, in terms of an environmental footprint, is not part of the equation.”

Jake Satisky contributed reporting.

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