On the Road with Urban Green at Warren Wilson College


Graphic by Chambers Design, Photo Courtesy of smart usa

As I drove away from Warren Wilson College after visiting it on my book tour, I tweeted I wanted to go to college there. It's one of those places that you can't help but love. It embodies a commitment to community, the environment, volunteerism, service and strives to live close to nature. It is not your normal everyday college campus - when I pulled into the main entrance, I thought it had a campy feel. By the time I was leaving, the school had a special meaning where people are very much concerned with doing more than just educating students...or more exact, the staff and facility at the four-year private school believe that an education is about more than class time and homework.
Photo Credit: Neil Chambers
Warren Wilson College was the third college I visited during the first leg of my book tour for Urban Green: Architecture for the Future. It consistently ranks high on the Sierra Clubs Coolest Schools, and it becomes obvious why very quickly. The school is located in Swannanoa, North Carolina near Asheville surrounded by mountains and lush green trees. It has a very aggressive recycling and composting program along with several LEED buildings. They have forgone the standard landscaping of lawn grass and shrubs and instead integrated native tall grasses and trees throughout the campus. The stairs and and walls that create paths that crisscross the grounds are made of local stones and have a design style that seems to accept the hilly topography versus fight it.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers
Education for Life
Warren Wilson has a very specific method of educating its students known as "the Triad" because it is a combination of work, academics, and service. Every student has to work an on-campus job, perform at least one hundred hours of community service over four years and complete a requisite course of academic work in order to graduate. Sara Benincasa, Tony Earley and James Franco are alumni. It is surrounded by a 300-acre working farm and market garden and 600 acres of maintained forest.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

A statement several of the staff at the college mentioned to me during my visit is that Warren Wilson isn't "just a hippie college". It is difficult to not think the opposite. The students at my presentation had a sense of pride for conserving water the old fashion way by not bathing and living by the motto "if it's yellow let it mellow. If it's brown wash it down"...a motto, I strongly agree with.

Food is Good for the Soul
When I first arrived at the school I was escorted to a dinner with several of the colleges staff and a few community members. It was such a wonderful surprise for them to take the time to talk with me and ask me about my work. During the meal, they served completely vegetarian dishes, a relief because I didn't have to turn away anything they served. It was like being home and around a table of friends. Each of them shared stories about how they see Warren Wilson College and the hopes for its future. They expressed the school's strengths and even offered "it isn't perfect and has its faults". That night however, the food had no mistakes at all.


Photo Credit: Neil Chambers

I would guess that a few more than a 100 students showed up to hear me give a lecture about my book. It was really a great crowd - none of my jokes or topics were lost to them. At one point, I got a little emotional when I was talking about September 11, 2001 and the non-profit I co-founded called Green Ground Zero. The audience didn't seem the least bit annoyed though I never find it acceptable to nearly start crying in front of a room of people.

Touring the Campus
The next day, Phillip R. Gibson, Director of Research & Community Outreach, gave me a tour of the entire campus on a solar-powered golf cart. I had a chance to see the working farm complete with chickens, pigs, cattle and sheep. They also have an area where any and all items that can be reused are stored and given a second chance at a useful life. Gibson also pointed out how the school had started using geothermal for one building and that the technology now is being incorporated into around 4 to 5 other structures.

I still want to go to school at Warren Wilson and hang out with all the students. The college has a magic that very few other places (academic or not) possess. I hope to be invited back soon.

More about Urban Green Book Tour and Green Campus
On the Road with Urban Green at Winthrop University
On the Road with Urban Green - One Week Out
Urban Green: Architecture for the Future Hits the Road for National Book Tour
How a Campus Lawn Becomes a No-Dig Permaculture Garden (Video)

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