Students walking by translink bus

Interview: John Madden, Director, Sustainability and Engineering Campus + Community Planning

John Madden, Director of Sustainability and Engineering at UBC Campus + Community Planning, share more on the imperative to address the climate, biodiversity, and health crisis at hand through bold, innovative, and collaborative action.

What is the operational role of your unit on campus?

At Campus + Community Planning, we engage with our diverse community and partners to create a campus that will support UBC’s vision of making the world a better place. We focus on designing sustainable buildings, landscapes, and neighbourhoods to create healthy, resilient, and animated learning and living environments. We are champions for a vibrant and sustainable campus. We work in partnership to shape the place that supports UBC’s academic mission and our sustainable communities.

What are your most urgent and pressing challenges?

We are in the midst of a climate, biodiversity, and health crisis that is having severe impacts on every dimension of our everyday life.

We have buildings and infrastructure that are aging and were not designed to respond to the frequency and severity of climate events. We need to find ways to deploy innovative approaches to the way we plan, design, construct and operate our campus. This includes retrofitting existing buildings in ways that minimize disruption while enhancing building performance and occupant thermal comfort and wellbeing. We need to deploy new and innovative building system technologies that improve thermal comfort and air quality, and nurture social connection and wellbeing, while eliminating carbon emissions. This is easier for new construction but much more challenging to retrofit older buildings because of cost, logistics, and disruptions.

UBC is a knowledge city on the western periphery of the region. With a daytime population that crests over 85,000 people, we need to find ways to enable a growing population to move to and from our campus through efficient and sustainable modes of transportation. We need to optimize land uses that create complete communities that reflect and connect the diversity of people and cultures.

We need to also figure out how we can meet the growing demands of our campus community through optimization of existing space (both land and building floor space) and when we do need a new (or improved) facility how it is designed such that it makes positive contributions to ecological and human health.

What potential research opportunities excite you the most, with regard to your unit’s function?

Together with our partners, we strive to stay ahead of the curve in planning, design, engagement, community building, and sustainability.

We are living in a digital world with access to infinite amounts of data and information. We believe there is enormous capacity to acquire and leverage data to inform policy, help shift toward sustainable behaviours, and evaluate impacts of the programs and policies that we implement.

Research can also help to understand how best to engage in planning for the future with our host Nations while also paving a path toward reconciliation with local Nations, leading to unique, mutually beneficial solutions and supporting UBC’s commitment to implementing articles of UNDRIP, TRC commission, and MMIWG Calls to Justice. We also have an opportunity to create a more welcoming environment where those who are historically, persistently, or systemically marginalized are treated equitably, feel respected, and belong.

As part of our newly endorsed Climate Action Plan 2030, we have an ambitious target to engage over 75% of our campus community to take direct climate action. We believe that research can help inform how to extend the reach of our engagement of our campus community and how we can use technology to better connect and create channels of information that build understanding of the many planning and sustainability initiatives that are occurring across campus. We need innovative platforms that help to connect and engage people in a meaningful way. Examples may include designing apps or platforms that incentivize people in taking more sustainable modes of transportation like transit or cycling, purchasing climate-friendly food, and/or taking fewer business flights. As individuals, we have enormous power and impact when working together across a large institution toward a common goal.

Another area is creating a more resilient, connected, and sustainable community through the design of buildings, infrastructure, and the public realm. We believe that our physical campus should better reflect the diverse cultures, values, and social needs of our campus community. How do we design buildings and infrastructure that leverage and enhance the role of natural assets such as trees? How does the built environment better integrate with the natural environment to contribute to improvements in both ecological and human health? Are there innovative technologies and approaches to how we build and deliver green buildings on campus?

Another opportunity that we are excited to advance is our Zero Waste Action Plan and integrating the principles of the circular economy to eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use for longer, and regenerate natural systems.

What are your operational constraints in incubating on-the-ground research?

Most often, the constraints revolve around tight project schedules, budgets, and mitigating risks. Operational projects have rigid timelines that do not correspond to the academic calendar and limited budgets. Another constraint is that projects are expected to deliver operational reliability. We need to balance the benefits of implementing new, innovative and sustainable technologies while maintaining a level of functional reliability in operating and maintaining buildings, infrastructure, and systems that support teaching, learning, and research.

What are your past research collaborations?
  • In-vessel composting system with AMS, Food Services
  • Deploying AI to monitor the type of items going into Zero Waste receptacles
  • Biodiversity monitoring at UBC Farm 
  • Using LiDAR to understand campus tree canopy coverage and eco-system services contributions with UBC Urban Forestry Program