Social Sustainability


Change Agent:
20 Years of Sustainability at UBC

Generating social good

There’s more to sustainability than looking after the environment; it also requires us to look after each other and ourselves. Our social sustainability commitment includes the long-term health, wellbeing, equity and diversity of the UBC community and beyond. To achieve this, we are taking a multifaceted and holistic approach to wellness, beginning with our built environment. By creating an environment that supports social interaction and active living, with healthy learning and research spaces that facilitate constructive dialogue and engagement, we are creating the foundation for numerous programs that support a healthy, socially regenerative community. Tackling inequity and intercultural tensions while nurturing diversity and social inclusion underpins our curriculum and culture. By understanding and practicing social sustainability, we are helping students, staff, faculty and our broader community to strengthen the societies in which we live.

Charting a course to campus health

On October 31, 2016, UBC marked a significant step toward social sustainability, becoming one of six Canadian universities to formally adopt the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. The document — developed with input from researchers, practitioners, administrators, students and policy makers from 45 countries — was the culmination of the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges held at UBC-O.

In adopting the charter, UBC, Simon Fraser University, Memorial University, Mount Royal University, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge created the Canadian Health Promoting Universities and Colleges Network, to promote health and wellbeing in post-secondary institutions across Canada and globally. UBC’s commitment to the Charter includes investing an additional $1 million toward supporting the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff on its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses. This funding will support UBC’s people to succeed by increasing resources to embed wellbeing efforts across faculties and units in both workplace and learning environments. Specific examples of where the funding will go includes creating new tools for educators to promote wellbeing in the classroom, enhancing our Healthy Workplace Initiative Fund, and enhancing community-led initiatives like the Thrive and MoveUBC.

Living well

A healthy community is a sustainable community. Our campus population exceeds that of many small towns, with more than 15,000 faculty and staff, and close to 62,000 students — and their wellbeing is critical to our enduring success. We have committed to supporting and championing wellbeing across the entire UBC community in order to combat barriers to health and wellness.

We’ve all heard the clichés about poor student diets. But we’re working to change that by ensuring that our campus community has access to healthy, nutritious and safe food. We’ve identified food and nutrition as a wellbeing priority, forming a Food and Nutrition Working Group on our Vancouver campus in 2016. Comprised of student, faculty, staff and community stakeholders, this group is helping guide food and nutrition strategies through the UBC Action Framework for a Nutritionally Sound Campus, created in 2016. Among the initiatives we’re taking to support nutrition are: more healthy choices in our food outlets, at our events and in our vending machines; a made-at-UBC approach to ingredient and allergen labelling; and more learn-to-cook program opportunities. Some important initiatives that took place in 2016 include the addition of fresh produce to the UBC Food Bank; organic certification of the UBC Farm; and the launch of a new residence dining hall, Open Kitchen, that features UBC Food Services’s first dedicated vegetarian and vegan kitchen.

To empower our staff to take charge of their health, our Healthy Workplace Initiative Program Fund provides start-up funds for units to develop their own programs, such as yoga classes, art projects, mental-health training and community gardens. Another important mental-health initiative is our annual Thrive at UBC campaign. A week-long series of events focused on building positive mental health and reducing mental-health stigma, it has grown in scope every year. In 2009, when it first launched, it consisted of 20 events in Vancouver. Today, Thrive includes hundreds of events across our Vancouver and Okanagan campuses.

As we advance toward greater sustainability through better health, our efforts are just beginning. Find out how you can get involved by visiting our dedicated Wellbeing website, and join us in fostering social sustainability at UBC.

thrive drawing
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UBC Thrive: How do you thrive?

UBC Thrive: How do you thrive?

Positive spaces

As a diverse and inclusive university, we are committed to ensuring our campuses are safe spaces for all. The Positive Space Campaign, first launched in 2002, has ensured that lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) students, staff and faculty feel welcome at UBC. You’ll find the Positive Space poster and sticker displayed in an array of locations on campus, to signal that the individuals who work, live or study there have completed their Positive Space training and that their environment supports and values sexual and gender diversity.

Anyone in the UBC community can take part in training to become a Positive Space Resource Person and strengthen their understanding of issues related to homophobia, heterosexism, transphobia, queer culture and local resources. Once training is completed, they can display a Positive Space sticker and poster in their office, room or study area. These training workshops, coordinated through the Equity and Inclusion Office, are offered throughout the year and are open to UBC students, staff and faculty.


The Positive Space Campaign, launched in 2002, has ensured that lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) students, staff and faculty feel welcome at UBC.

People united

The United Way campaign, the only one of its kind approved by the Board of Governors since 1976, is a commitment we are proud to say goes back more than four decades. The United Way campaign at UBC positively impacts individuals and families in need who benefit from the hundreds of programs and services provided through United Way’s community partnerships.

As one of United Way’s recognized top contributors, UBC has consistently raised more than $500,000 a year since 2009 — enough to support 37,000 people in the Lower Mainland. Donations come through a variety of fundraising activities held in the fall, including the Turkey 2K Trot race/walk; the Museum of Anthropology’s Culture Fest; the Arts Food Truck Festival and UBC Robson Square’s annual Wine Tasting event; as well as donations from employees and emeriti.

The UBC Okanagan campus’s United Way campaign began in 2005, and is also having a big impact, helping support close to 3,000 individuals in the local Central and South Okanagan and Similkameen community every year. All funds raised go toward supporting children, building communities and fighting poverty. These efforts not only encourage team building on campus, but they also foster interconnectedness with the wider community, strengthening social sustainability at UBC-O and beyond.

Both campuses volunteer their time (over 350 volunteers and 90+ committee members) in helping United Way funded agencies with tasks such as making cards for hospitalized children, gardening, painting and putting together care packages for families and individuals in need. UBC also offers a unique professional development opportunity to both students and staff to be seconded to the United Way each year, working as a Campaign Associate.

Knowledge Exchange

Picture a place where members of different communities can exchange skills, ideas and perspectives. You’ve just visualized the UBC Learning Exchange, where members of the university community build two-way relationships with people who live and work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). The initiative began in the summer of 1999, when two UBC students explored and reported on how the university could build a community presence in the DTES. That fall, the UBC Learning Exchange Trek Program matched 30 UBC student volunteers to non-profit organizations and elementary schools in the DTES.

A year later, the Learning Exchange opened its doors at 121 Main Street, a space that offered free computer access to local residents as part of a federally funded network of DTES organizations. A number of outreach initiatives followed, supported by generous grants from HSBC Bank Canada and private donors: music appreciation classes for DTES residents; community service learning projects for UBC students; ESL conversation programs; and the incorporation of community service learning into 41 academic courses at UBC.

In 2008, the Learning Exchange moved to a larger space at 612 Main Street, where it remains a hub of activity. Volunteers from the DTES community and UBC staff lead social, educational and free educational programs in ESL, computers, art and other topics. Innovative thinking thrives at the Exchange, which has facilitated such initiatives as LinkVan, a web-based app created for those living on the streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Designed by student volunteers in 2015, the app provides up-to-date information on available shelter beds and other resources, and continues to evolve as front-line service providers add information for their clients. Above all, the Learning Exchange is a place where social sustainability is in action, with strong connections and partnerships being forged between DTES local residents, UBC and the wider community.

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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: The UBC Sustainability Initiative and Campus and Community Planning and the many units, departments, and faculties at UBC that helped contribute invaluable information on sustainability for this story.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, online producer; Cynthia Deng, web developer assistant; Margaret Doyle, digital storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC photographer; Michael Kam, web developer; Adrian Liem, manager, digital communications; Mark Pilon, communication designer; Jamil Rhajiak, digital communications specialist; Laura Stobbe, communication designer; Matt Warburton, manager, graphic design; Aida Viziru, web interaction designer. Content writer — Jessica Werb. Copy editor — David Leidl.

Published: May 2017