An NAU Planning, Design and Construction (PDC) Captial Project Report details 148 construction projects around NAU. The activities listed on this report, released May 1, vary immensely in scope, ranging from minor renovation efforts to major construction plans, which include Kitt Recital Hall, the Student Athlete High Performance Center and the Multi-Discipline Academic Research STEM Building. These projects entail hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, extensive resources and long-term planning.
Despite the significant amount of construction on campus, the number of students has reduced, according to an email from Kimberly Ott, the assistant to the president for executive communication and media relations.
Ott’s email stated student enrollment at NAU has decreased in the last year. Undergraduate enrollment in 2018 was 27,078. This year, it is 26,513. These statistics represent a decrease of 565 students, or approximately 2.1% of NAU’s undergraduate student population. Additionally, NAU’s total enrollment, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, has diminished by 337 students since 2018, or roughly 1.1%.
The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) Operational and Financial Review Background Report details the predicted institutional metrics for NAU by 2025. As stated by the report, ABOR’s goal is to reach an undergraduate enrollment count of 30,312 students. ABOR also projects an increase of more than 4,000 in total enrollment numbers, projecting that NAU will have nearly 35,000 students in 2025.
Although enrollment rates have only stalled recently, the demographic transition predicts long-term population stability or decline. In turn, NAU’s targeted student enrollment count could be unrealistic, particularly as the American population grows older.
Over the years, as NAU has continued to advance, parts of Flagstaff have paralleled its expansion. The west side of town highlights this trend through complexes such as Aspen Place at the Sawmill, Fremont Station Apartments and Hub Flagstaff. Additionally, the sustainability of the region — both environmentally and economically — has been called into question.
Margo Wheeler is a professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Recreation. Wheeler is an accomplished urban planner and has developed numerous sustainability efforts throughout cities in the southwest, including Las Vegas and San Bernardino. Wheeler’s occupation has familiarized her with demographic trends and urbanization efforts throughout the United States.
Wheeler said the recent decline in NAU’s enrollment has not been significant or prolonged enough to warrant serious concern. Furthermore, she said current enrollment figures are merely a temporary lull, not a long-term trend. Wheeler added that this lull will not likely stagnate development projects, both residential and commercial, throughout campus and Flagstaff.
“When ABOR looks at data that suggests continued growth, they recommend various developments to each of the three [Arizona public] universities,” Wheeler said. “New construction projects don’t mirror, they follow.”
Wheeler also said reliable enrollment trends are challenging to forecast. Population patterns frequently vary between different years, and subsequently, development projects are often organized independently. Rather than perfectly following the demand, construction is either behind or ahead of it.
Zack Hansen, a sophomore at the UA Honors College, majors in civil engineering and minors in sustainable built environments. Hansen was born and raised in Flagstaff, and through the years, he has been involved in the NAU community. Similar to Wheeler, Hansen said the decrease in enrollment is not serious enough to alter development patterns.
“If the decline in enrollment had been systemic or progressive over the last few years, I think that’s what would make it start to matter,” Hansen said. “Five years is probably the drawing point, because that’s a full cycle of students and a new freshman class.”
Demography and sustainability are both dynamic, complex fields. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development is one organization that centers around the globalization of sustainable planning and environmental awareness. In 1980, the department created a common definition for sustainability.
“[Sustainability is] the physical development and institutional practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the committee stated.
The city of Flagstaff’s comprehensive planning website states there is a regional plan employed until 2030 that outlines extensive development within the current city boundaries, in addition to expansion efforts along the perimeter. It also emphasizes a balance between the various economic, environmental and cultural resources found in the area.
“The greater Flagstaff community embraces the region’s extraordinary cultural and ecological setting on the Colorado Plateau through active stewardship of the natural and built environments,” the website states. “Residents and visitors encourage and advance intellectual, environmental, social and economic vitality for today’s citizens and future generations.”
The city and the United Nations both reference the current and future implications of environmental planning. Although present needs may demand increased infrastructure, a long-term perspective must also be maintained. This visionary outlook is demonstrated by the prolonged regional plan, of which NAU is a critical component.
According to an economic report prepared by the Alliance Bank Economy Policy Institute, NAU supplied 19,500 jobs to Coconino County in 2017-18. These employees, along with other fiscal institutional assets, also contributed $1.96 billion in economic activity. Through its continued growth and infrastructure, the university represents a considerable portion of the local community.
Despite the benefits of NAU, Hansen said the university is compromising the future of Flagstaff. The rapid expansion and development of campus infrastructure may have ramifications for the greater area. Although current student enrollment is relatively stable, the university and its numerous third-party partners, continue to expand. Hansen said this growth has dramatically altered his hometown.
“I think the answer [to sustainability] lies in respecting our home and preserving the college-town identity,” Hansen said. “I get that it’s natural for a college to want to grow and that it can be beneficial for students, but that only applies for universities who do so in a targeted manner.”
Hansen said the university and city must work together. In order to be well-equipped for the present while also respecting the future, sustainability must be a priority for all parties.
“As much as Flagstaff is a college-town, I think that the key to being sustainable is for neither the university or city to overpower the other. The two need to be symbiotic, but distinctly separate,” Hansen said. “That seems to be the problem that we’re running into right now, because NAU is overexpanding its boundaries into Flagstaff.”