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Environmental Action at Swarthmore

Swarthmore College has a long tradition of honoring the natural environment. As concern about climate change mounts here and around the world, the College continues to address the issue and make substantial strides in reducing its energy and water consumption.



Location of Swarthmore College

Black and white sketch of Parrish Hall

"The Westdale property, Springfield Township, Delaware County, Pa. ... furnishing a fine building site upon high ground sloping to the south, and commanding a fine view of the surrounding country … no place offered to the Committee affords such romantic and secluded rambles as the rocky and sloping hill-sides which bound this stream [Crum Creek].” — Circular, Board of Managers, 1863


Opening Day

Opening Day Treeplanting PhotoSwarthmore’s Quaker founders “loved trees,” wrote John Wister, the first director of the Scott Arboretum, in 1939. “On the opening day, Nov. 10, 1869, Lucretia Mott planted a red oak; a succession of famous men and women, including presidents of our country, have planted trees on Founders Day ever since.”


Scott Arboretum

AmphitheaterThe Scott Horticultural Foundation is founded on campus in honor of Arthur Hoyt Scott, Class of 1895. Today, the Scott Arboretum encompasses more than 300 acres of the Swarthmore campus and exhibits over 4,000 different kinds of plants recommended for area gardens.


Crum Woods Cleanup

During the Depression, the College organizes and funds, with Swarthmore Borough, work parties of former area mill workers to clear paths, open trails, cut dead trees, and haul out trash from the woods. According to the Arboretum's first director, after conducting this work from 1930-32, "they literally transformed the dilapidated areas into a pleasant woodland park with attractive paths."


Crum Woods Preservation

Crum WoodsThen-President Courtney Smith galvanizes opposition to the construction of a major highway, whose proposed routes would run through College-owned land in the Crum Woods. In letters to the community, he and then-Board Chair Claude Smith explain the detrimental effects the construction will have on the College and surrounding area and urge faculty, students, staff, and alumni to "express your views ... by letter or telegram" to the governor and federal officials. President's Smith's own correspondence to officials includes: "The Crum Valley and the spirit of careful conservation which it encourages has distinguished Swarthmore and the surrounding communities ... Surely Swarthmore College, which originally came to the country in response to a felt need for a location affording quiet and peaceful contemplation, looks toward the good of all in seeking to preserve this heritage."


Crum Woods as Classroom and Laboratory

Students conduct a study of the Crum Creek through campus and find it to be "relatively healthy and unpolluted... but limited in its ability to support plant and animal life." Biology, religion, and other classes continue to be held in the woods to this day.


Ecological Survey

The College commissions an ecological survey of the Crum Woods from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry in its efforts to preserve the Crum Creek area as a natural "green belt."


Crum Woods Cleanup Revisited

Students work with members of the Biology Department to organize students, faculty, staff members, and alumni in cleaning up the woods. 


Funding for Internships

The James H. Scheuer '42 Summer Internship in Environmental Studies is established.


Environmental Studies

Environmental Studies Program is established.


Environmental Racism Conference

Students organize a conference on environmental racism in Chester, Pa. that draws 60 students from 15 colleges and universities. Their efforts lead to the formation of the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, which was active in the 1990s in that city's environmental justice efforts.


Wind Power

Students with windmillsSwarthmore begins purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) in the form of wind power. Since 2011, 100 percent of the College’s greenhouse-gas emissions generated as a result of electricity are offset by RECs.


Crum Woods Stewardship

Student planting a tree in Crum Woods



The College establishes a committee of students, faculty, and staff members to protect, restore, and steward the 220 acres of mostly forested land along the Crum Creek that straddles Swarthmore’s campus.


Green Roofs

Green roofs

The College’s first green roof is installed on a shed behind Papazian Hall in 2003. The next year, Alice Paul Hall becomes the first residence hall in North America to have a green roof. David Kemp Hall joins in 2009.


Green Power

Swarthmore and Earthlust, a student environmental activism group, receives the Green Power: Turn It On! Award from PennFuture for helping to start the College’s recycling program and raising awareness about food waste and electricity usage, among other campaigns.

Trash to Treasure

People search through items at the Trash to Treasure sale

The first sale of gently used items donated by students at the end of the year raises more than $12,000 for nonprofit organizations in the community. The 2014 T2T sale raised approximately $20,000 and kept about 14 tons of material – picture 25 industrial-sized dumpsters – from being incinerated.


Sustainability Committee

committee of students, faculty, and staff members is formed to make recommendations to the President and to the College community regarding policies to promote environmental sustainability on campus. 


Students and compost pileComposting of food waste from the dining hall begins.


Environmental Studies Senior Capstone

The 2010 Senior Capstone Seminar of the Environmental Studies creates a website to serve as a resource for many of the issues surrounding drilling of the Marcellus Shale.

Climate Commitment

President Rebecca Chopp signs the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, joining leaders of institutions in higher education across the country in accelerating educational and operational efforts to address climate change. The College has since taken several actions to fulfill this commitment, including the development and adoption of a Climate Action Plan.


Investment Strategies

Members of Mountain Justice, a student group that works toward climate justice, the administration, and the Board of Managers meet to discuss the College’s endowment and the possibility of divesting the College from investments in fossil fuels. Discussions continue at dozens of meetings between 2011 and 2013.


Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report

The College publishes the 2005-2010 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report [pdf], which inventories greenhouse gas emissions and serves as the baseline assessment for Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan.

Carbon Neutrality

To meet the Presidents' Climate Commitment, the College develops and adopts a Climate Action Plan [pdf], which pledges carbon neutrality by 2035.


Decision on Divestment

Board Chair Gil Kemp ’72, on behalf of the Board of Managers, informs the community that “[I]t is our collective judgment that the cost of divestment would far outweigh any potential benefit. If we thought divestment would change the behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels, this would be a much tougher decision. We believe we have other, more effective means to achieve this objective.”

LPAC Green Roof

LPAC green roofAt 31,000 square feet, the completion of the LPAC’s green roof more than doubles the College’s total green roof acreage, which absorbs rainwater while also providing natural habitat.



U.N. Climate Change Conference

Swarthmore seeks and is granted NGO observer status to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties and now sends students, staff, and faculty to the annual meetings of the U.N. body tasked with developing international agreements to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate change.


Sustainability Director

The College hires its first sustainability director, whose early initiatives include administering the College’s Green Initiatives Fund, partnering with a car share program, and leading the development of sustainable building standards for renovations and new construction on campus.

Call for Big Ideas to Address Climate Change

Interim President Constance Hungerford issues a call for ways the College could address climate change; the community responds with more than 160 ideas.


The College's first sustainability director, Laura Cacho, issues a report [pdf] to the president that provides a snapshot of the College’s past and current practices and policies regarding environmental sustainability, some of the gaps in action, and the challenges the College faces to improve its environmental practices. 

Note from the author: This report is intended to provide a snapshot of the College’s past and current practices and policies regarding environmental sustainability, some of the gaps in action, and the challenges the College faces to improve its environmental practices. It should serve as a working document that will be modified as I continue to serve as director of sustainability, and I plan for it to become the starting place for a community conversation on sustainability and all of our roles.

When I was hired in February, my directive was to focus a significant portion of my time on reducing the College’s carbon footprint and improving the College’s practices regarding environmental sustainability. As this report illustrates, the College has made great strides in these areas thanks to the work of numerous dedicated staff, faculty, and students; much of this work has been performed with volunteer labor or outside of employees’ regular job descriptions. However, the challenge of meeting the goals of carbon neutrality by 2035 and drastically improving our practices will require more than the devoted effort of a few people. It will require community members to self-monitor their behaviors and daily activities at the College, i.e., individual consumption of energy and water, types and quantities of materials purchased, modes of waste disposal, and frequency and means of travel. It will also require a significant investment in our infrastructure to eliminate use of fossil fuels for energy; the creation of a consistent and clear waste system across the entire campus so that good habits are easy to form; improved storm-water management practices to minimize the impacts of our current and future development; the capture and reuse of rain- and gray water to reduce the use of drinking water for non-potable purposes; and the development of standards and policies to guide our future actions.

These changes will not happen overnight, and they will require difficult, complex choices and creative thinking. I look forward to working with each of you as we take on this challenge as a community. I will be reaching out to each department in the coming year, but in the meantime, please feel free to contact me directly to start the conversation.

Commitment to Sustainable Buildings

The Board of Managers commits $12 million to making the planned biology, engineering, and psychology building project, now Maxine Frank Singer Hall, a model for environmentally intelligent construction practices. 

Investment Survey

As part of its ongoing due diligence, Swarthmore asks its investment managers to describe their approach to climate change. Nearly all of the firms with whom the College has active relationships consider climate change in their investment process and dedicate significant resources to defining, measuring, analyzing, and improving the environmental impact of their investment decisions. 


Sustainability Charrette

Participants listenOn February 11th and 12th, The Board of Managers sponsors a Sustainability Charrette that generated proposals in six critical areas for the College community’s consideration and action, including improving the College’s energy efficiency, installing a renewable energy system on campus, evaluating how the College’s endowment is invested, and becoming a zero-waste campus.

This unique event combined inspiring and thought-provoking talks from leaders in sustainable design, engineering, policy, and economics with a collaborative, facilitated process to bring forth our best ideas for a sustainable campus, starting with and building upon the 160+ sustainability proposals generated this fall. The Board’s recent commitment to make the planned Biology, Engineering, Psychology building a model for environmentally intelligent construction practices is just the beginning. The Managers have already made it clear that they are willing to commit substantial resources to help Swarthmore become a leader in the efforts to combat climate change.

Expert facilitator, Sandy Wiggins, guided students, faculty, and staff through a refinement of ideas into a concrete list at the end of the two days. These facilitated sessions were enhanced by presentations from sustainability experts David Orr, Nikki Silvestri, Hunter Lovins, Bill Browning, John Fullerton, Greg Kats, and Kevin Hydes. Their collective insights throughout the intensive two-day process helped shape the conversation and sharpen our vision of the College’s future. Please click here for biographies for these invited guests.

This collaborative two-day event was a rare opportunity to learn from experts while simultaneously formulating the College’s efforts to address the challenges of climate change as a community. The challenges posed by climate change are unprecedented, but the opportunities those challenges present—opportunities to recreate our society on a more just, equitable, and humane basis—are also unparalleled.  A summary of the charrette outcomes and next steps [PDF]

* A charrette is an intensive, collaborative effort to complete a solution to a complex problem before a given deadline.  The deadline provides a sense of urgency that heightens creativity and teamwork.  Charrettes are often used in urban planning and building design to bring together citizens, government officials, and experts to gather input and create joint ownership of a project.

Community Activism 

Members of Mountain Justice hold a 32-day sit-in in Parrish Hall for fossil fuel divestment. At an April faculty meeting, 39 members of the faculty vote in favor of, with three voting against and three abstaining, a resolution calling for the College to partially divest from fossil fuel investments within separately managed accounts. 

Zero-Waste Week

Green Advisors, a student group that facilitates environmentally-friendly campus living, sponsors a zero-waste week.

Environmental Sustainability Framework

The College launches its Environmental Sustainability Framework, a set of guidelines for capital projects and facilities operations anchored in its previous climate commitments. The Framework includes analyses of stormwater management, carbon, and energy - as well as sustainable building guidelines and a project checklist.


Carbon Charge 

In February, the Board of Managers allocates $300,000 for a new carbon charge, providing support for campus initiatives and projects that increase energy conservation and efficiency and promote renewable energy.  

Sustainability Summit

Hosted by the Office of Sustainability in April, the inaugural summit draws a crowd of more than 200 individuals, including students, staff, faculty, and local community members. The summit features tabling by environmental student and community groups, interactive exhibits, poster presentations, and break-out sessions for attendees to share ideas for the future and to assess current sustainability efforts on campus. Additionally, speakers, including President Valerie Smith, address the audience with updates on the College's ongoing sustainability projects. 


Carbon Pricing

Following the successful launch of Swarthmore's internal carbon charge, President Valerie Smith sends a letter to more than 100 college and university presidents around the country asking them to consider supporting carbon pricing as a matter of policy. As a leader of this campaign, Swarthmore serves as a model for other institutions and advocates for carbon pricing at state and national levels.


DECLARATION OF Climate Emergency

Underscoring the College's longstanding commitment to sustainability, President Valerie Smith signs the Sustainable Development Goal’s Climate Emergency Letter, adding Swarthmore College to a list of higher and further education institutions around the world that have collectively declared a global climate emergency.



Board of Managers Announces Plan to Reach Carbon Neutrality Goal by 2035

The College's ambitious energy plan, 20X35, charts a transformative path to efficient, combustion-free energy on campus. A central component of this plan is connecting buildings across campus to a heating and cooling geoexchange system. Powered by renewable energy, the process extracts heat from buildings during the summer and stores it underground for use in the winter — all while producing zero carbon emissions. Learn more.