Opinions

Steinman ’19: Rescue the Urban Environmental Lab

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Brown announced potential plans Saturday to destroy what has become a second home to me and many others on campus — but you have to read between the lines to notice it. In an enthusiastic statement, the University publicized a new performing arts center that was approved last week at the Corporation’s yearly winter meeting. But in the statement, administrators gave short shrift to the planned location of the center between Angell St. and Waterman St., which is “currently occupied by a parking lot, three residential structures and two academic buildings.” One of those academic buildings is the Urban Environmental Lab, which passersby might know as the farmhouse-style building with a community garden. The UEL serves as home to the environmental studies department, the Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown initiative, Bikes at Brown, Brown Market Shares, emPOWER and its associated organizations — invaluable members of the Brown and Providence communities.      

This is not the first time the UEL has come under threat. Plans were drawn up to demolish the building in 2006 to make way for a Mind Brain Behavior building. At the time, students and faculty mobilized to preserve the space, and it was listed as the most endangered building in Providence by the Providence Preservation Society. By early 2009, the University had abandoned its plans due to financial concerns. But nearly a decade later, we have come full circle.

The UEL’s storied life traces the history of Brown and of the environmental movement itself. Built in 1884 as a carriage house designed by the architect of Sayles Hall, the building was later used as a home, a Pembroke dorm and a garage before it was purchased by Brown in 1966 and given to the environmental studies department’s founding in 1978. The building was renovated by students into one of the very first “green” buildings in the world, heated almost entirely by convection from the greenhouse. Far from being an inefficient use of space, the UEL is designed to “showcase the maximum of what can be done in an urban environment,” in the words of a student involved in its founding.

The UEL is a home in the way that a newly constructed building never will be — certainly not in the way that the sleek, chilly Building for Environmental Research and Teaching lounge would be as a replacement. The residential feel of the UEL allows for an intermixing of professors and students that has come to define the department. I have a closer relationship with my advisor, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies Kurt Teichert, than almost any of my non-environmental studies friends do with theirs, and I attribute at least part of this to the fact that our meetings take place inside the UEL. Losing the familiarity of this community center would change what it means to be an environmental studies student at Brown. This is not sentimentality: The UEL is the type of synergistic, interdisciplinary space that architects try to create. Nor is it a niche issue. Already, a Facebook page dedicated to saving the UEL has garnered almost 200 likes, and a petition for sharing memories of the space has over 170 responses, 59 percent of which are from current students outside the environmental studies department. Many of the responses came from music and performing arts students who feel a real need for a performing arts center but object to losing the UEL first and foremost.

This decision comes at perhaps the most inopportune time for Brown’s environmental studies program to lose its heart and soul. Students signing a petition to save the UEL recall seeking solace in the space the morning after the election, watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech and literally leaning on professors’ shoulders for support. It is the incubator for student activism and organizing around one of the most important political and social justice issues of our time. When I was a prospective student, the sight of the UEL in the center of campus was, to me, a symbol of Brown’s commitment to sustainability. As the lowest energy density building on campus by a long shot, outperforming even new “green” buildings like the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts and BERT, the UEL is more than just a symbol of that commitment — it is its most successful manifestation.

The performing arts are a valuable part of Brown, and I don’t want to discredit them. But even Brown’s own promotional material makes it unclear what distinguishes this new, state-of-the-art, interdisciplinary performing arts center from our other new, state-of-the-art, interdisciplinary performing arts center just across the street from the UEL: the Granoff Center, which opened just six years ago. Professor of Music Joseph Butch Rovan, who directs the Brown Arts Initiative and sees the hypothetical new center as “central” to the initiative’s mission, envisions the new space as a place to “advance new forms of knowledge and new methods of creative expression across all departments and art forms.” Meanwhile, the Granoff Center, according to its own website, is a place where “creative thinkers from across disciplines can come together to work collaboratively, exchange ideas and create new art forms.” The lesson to learn here is that though the need for a full-sized theater is real, the need for an entire new arts center may not be — particularly not one placed 10 feet over the bus tunnel on Thayer St.

The UEL is irreplaceable. Yes, professors’ offices and classes could be relocated. Clubs could find other meeting rooms. But the UEL’s destruction goes beyond what would be the tragic loss of a historic building with a truly extraordinary second life as a model sustainable home. Rather, the demise of the UEL would represent nothing less than the gutting of a tight-knit, often-overlooked activist community. If the University wants to demonstrate a commitment to environmentalism — and indeed, “Sustaining Life on Earth,” which is one of the seven pillars in the 2014 strategic plan “Building on Distinction” — it will have to come to terms with the fact that the UEL’s demolition will be a serious setback to the student environmental community and will hinder that commitment going forward.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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