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Low concept, high impact

Bicycles part of decarbonizing Memorial solution, say geography students

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

To mark Earth Day on April 22, the Gazette is featuring a suite of sustainability-themed stories this week. Keep an eye out for more from April 19–21.

The current “buzz” around electric vehicles is a powerful one.

Two students stand close together wearing black jackets and have plants on either side. There is a light blue bicycle to the right.
From left are students Amanda Walsh and Gillian Edmunds.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

But some say the answer to decarbonization might lie with older technology – the humble bicycle.

That’s according to a student research project in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Dr. Josh Lepawsky’s Geography in Action course, produced as part of a collaboration with Memorial’s Sustainability and Climate Action Office.

Dr. Lepawsky, a global expert on e-waste, decided to make decarbonizing Memorial the theme of his capstone course.

He approached the Sustainability and Climate Action Office’s Justin Dearing to be the “client” for the project.

Dr. Josh Lepawsky leans against a wall with a glass wall out of focus behind him.
Dr. Josh Lepawsky
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

He says part of what the students focused on is that organizational change is hard.

They also had to go beyond the physics of climate change to look at the actual “levers” and identify who has their hands on them.

“Partnering with academic staff to bring real-world challenges to students and inviting their direct participation to create solutions is critical to solving the challenges we collectively face,” says Mr. Dearing, who visited the class early in the fall of 2022 to share strategies his office is working on.

The strategies are broad and include waste diversion projects like digitizing paper-heavy processes; composting; importing plastics recycling; public transit and electrification of fleet vehicles; and major energy conversation projects like the electrification of the university’s boiler system.

Security, storage and signage

In their decarbonizing Memorial project, geography students Gillian Edmunds, Aimee Gignac, Ally Pye and Amanda Walsh identified what the university needs to improve or implement to increase bike usage.

“[The 2012 survey] mentioned a lot of the same things we found 11 years later.” — Ally Pye

Before embarking on data collection, the group reviewed a 2012 survey on the topic of biking on campus.

“It mentioned a lot of the same things we found 11 years later,” says Ms. Pye, who is interested in a teaching career. “When solutions are relatively small, like security and storage, no one seems to care about them enough.”

An illustration of the planet Earth with plant fronds around the perimeter of the image. The words "Saturday, April 22 Earth Day" are to the left.

The extensive report concludes with specific recommendations for three key incentives to increase cycling and to decarbonize campus that are currently within Memorial’s control and require limited resources: bicycle security, storage and signage.

“I think the pandemic was a way of seeing how relatively small changes do have an effect, like having cars off the road for a period of time,” said Ms. Walsh, who is interested in a career as a lawyer. “Any change can be effective. We should definitely be working on the small things now instead of just waiting for larger change to happen.”

‘Only so much time’

With upwards of 20,000 members, Memorial’s St. John’s campus is essentially the fifth-largest community in the province.

This, and other research projects from the course, can be adapted and replicated for similar communities.

“Our university is the body we learn and grow in — and we all want it to be healthy.” — Justin Dearing

Everyone involved recognizes the tangible and practical benefits of the partnership.

“We loved what we were doing,” said Ms. Pye. “You feel like you are actively making a difference.”

For Dr. Lepawsky, it’s about resources.

“We all have only so much time, so I thought why not put effort into where I work as a place that needs change.”

And client-side, Mr. Dearing offers an apt analogy.

“It’s integral to help students understand why change can be slow in a large institution — it’s like a living organism with complex systems keeping it alive,” he said. “We can’t rush to operate on a system solely with passion. We have to prepare and ensure the impacts of our changes will last long-term and add to the overall well-being. Our university is the body we learn and grow in — and we all want it to be healthy.”

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