After nearly three decades at Yale, Ginger Chapman, Director of the Office of Sustainability, will retire at the end of December. Chapman joined the Office of Sustainability in 2013 and partnered with colleagues across the University to refine our sustainability goals, a process that yielded the Yale Sustainability Plan 2025—the guiding document outlining Yale’s comprehensive set of goals.
A graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, Chapman previously served as Director of Facilities Sustainable Initiatives, developing strategies for sustainable building design and construction; the Sustainability Supplement to the Framework for Campus Planning; and the Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan, as well as additional sustainable land use practices.
She also served 12 years as Director of Facilities Planning & Construction at Yale School of Medicine, where she directed project management staff in the development and execution of capital projects.
In this Q&A, Chapman talks about Yale’s progress on meeting its sustainability and climate goals, and the work that remains to be done.
Can you talk about your journey from architecture to sustainability?
Architecture, broadly speaking, for me has always been connected to sustainability, so the movement to this focus made a lot of sense. Our built environment is where we spend 90% of our time and can address so many of the challenges presented by the climate crisis: reducing air pollution and GHG emissions; addressing the depletion of natural resources; supporting human health and well-being with natural light, fresh air, non-toxic materials, and connection to nature; valuing water; responsibly managing stormwater; and providing resilience in the face of the already locked-in impacts of climate change. The potential positive impact of well-designed and constructed architecture and landscape is vast.
How has the concept of sustainability evolved over the nearly 30 years you spent at Yale?
Over the years, Yale moved from a piecemeal approach to environmental management to understanding that only a connected-systems approach can effectively address the challenges we face.
Sustainability at Yale in 1995 was limited to the heroic efforts of CJ May who singlehandedly pushed Yale to be mindful of waste and promoted recycling. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, students pushed Yale leadership to do more, ultimately leading to a landmark GHG emissions reduction commitment in 2005. It also led to the creation of a University office to consider Yale’s environmental management in a wide-ranging manner; to bold experiments with building projects like the Chemical Research Building, multiple laboratory projects at Yale School of Medicine and Kroon Hall; to the development of sustainable design and construction standards in 2009; and to the current Yale Sustainability Plan 2025, which set goals to consider the climate crisis and environmental degradation comprehensively.
Yale committed to an ambitious climate target last year that will require every new project and renovation on campus to be climate-ready and resilient, and the University is initiating major infrastructure projects to ensure renewable energy supply to our campus.
It has been remarkable to see the diversity of people who have stepped up and become engaged to take on the climate challenge in their work over the years; from Facilities engineers, architects, and grounds maintenance staff to procurement professionals, health and safety advocates, mental health researchers, museum curators, and collections specialists. The Yale community has been and continues to be the driving force behind Yale’s evolving sustainability journey.
What’s the key to building momentum for such ambitious sustainability goals at a place as big as Yale?
To build momentum it is essential to understand the goals and priorities of constituents at Yale and to show how sustainability helps advance them. Finding alignment engenders engagement and partnership. Our office describes ourselves as conveners, bridge builders, champion nurturers, and catalysts for new conversations—and we often have to influence without authority.
We work across the University with a variety of stakeholders—faculty, staff, and students, across disciplines and operational units—by facilitating and leveraging connections. In this way we can guide sustainability planning to set ambitious yet achievable goals and help implement them. Attention to data allows us to measure and benchmark to hold the University accountable for progress against goals. And we strive to keep the community aware of the work and how they can be engaged.
What do you see as some of Yale’s biggest accomplishments in sustainability over the past decade?
Two of our biggest accomplishments were achieving our initial emissions reduction target—between 2005 and 2020— and setting an ambitious new one to make Yale a zero-emissions campus by 2050, with an interim step to be carbon-neutral by 2035. Another major achievement was creation of our nine-year sustainability strategy, the Yale Sustainability Plan 2025, and engaging deans and other University leaders to drive our sustainability ambitions forward. Two additional accomplishments of note would be the commitment to continued enhancements to Yale’s high-performance design standards for building projects, and the creation of the Yale Planetary Solutions Project , which brings together interdisciplinary teams at Yale to find solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises.
What do you see as the biggest leadership opportunities for Yale and higher education around sustainability in the near future?
Universities and other higher education institutions have a critical role to play in helping society address the climate crisis. They can demonstrate leadership and “walk the talk” by proactively reducing their own footprint, developing the next generation of sustainability leaders, and supporting pioneering research and innovation. Yale can provide sustainability leadership by integrating a sustainability mindset into research, teaching, learning, campus operations, and community engagement.
The biggest opportunity is working and aligning with Yale’s home city and region to develop a robust resilience plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided, while at the same time contributing to solutions and taking actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An important part of that effort will be considering the full impact of our operations beyond the emissions we produce in our power plants or purchase from the grid; this requires understanding, reporting on, and taking steps to lessen Yale’s scope 3 emissions.
What will you miss most about working at Yale?
I will miss my colleagues across the University who I have had the opportunity to work with and who have inspired and taught me so much over the years. What has been most rewarding is when there is a confluence of ideas, interests, and passion resulting in a project that engages a combination of students, faculty, and staff to move an initiative forward. It has been gratifying to work across the many and varied realms at the University to implement changes in policy, behavior, and culture. I have appreciated the thought leadership and collaboration both internally and externally that has enhanced our efforts and led to stronger outcomes. My work here provided a way to address global challenges locally by collaborating with partners across the University to demonstrate how to implement change, which has been very rewarding.
What does your next chapter have in store?
I’m excited to figure that out. I am sure to remain engaged with sustainability in some form or another and support the work to ensure a thriving and equitable world is available for future generations.