With sustainability becoming mainstream and being embraced by our younger generations, it is not surprising that Colleges and Universities are taking steps in improving their campus sustainability. Some programs are created and run by students, others by university staff, and sometimes staff positions and departments are specifically created for the cause.
With the growth of sustainability on campus, the ranking of schools based on their sustainability has also increased with reports from the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). These programs and reviews rate everything from energy and water use, local food production, recycling practices, and incorporation of sustainability topics into the curriculum. However, one element seems to be consistently lacking or, if touched on, limited in scope and depth in both practice and curriculum: the sustainable landscape.
Granted buildings are the big energy hogs and their consumption of resources during construction and operation can easily be measured. The root of sustainability is limiting our impact on natural resources, ecology and human health and well being. So why do sustainability programs focus almost exclusively on limiting off-site impact, when we can also be improving on-site cultural and natural resources?
Campuses have the potential of providing a great deal of ecosystem services when designed and managed properly. Well structured landscapes can result in functioning ecosystems, while key landscape elements can have a variety of positive benefits. Native plants in natural areas as well as the manicured landscape can provide key habitat for pollinator species such as native and honey bees, and birds. The use of native grass for turf areas can improve soil structure and stormwater management, while reducing chemical inputs and water needs. In appropriate bioregions, continuous native tree canopies and remnant forest canopies can have large positive effects on local microclimates, building heating and cooling loads, providing habitat and travel corridors for many bird, insect and small mammal species. Preserved and restored streams and drainages and LID practices can not only improve stomwater management, but also provide habitat and an aesthetic amenity to campus users. Green roofs can provide habitat and resting spaces for migrating bird and insect species, while also reducing stromwater runoff and building energy needs. All-in-all the landscape can manage stormwater, provide recreation and restorative spaces, provide habitat and travel corridors for many animal species, reduce urban heat island effects, reduce building heating and cooling loads, filtering air pollution, sequester carbon, and much more. All of these elements when overlapped can have large local and regional benefits, truly strengthening any sustainability program.
Sustainability programs, to truly be sustainable, must be holistic in their approach. While the specific pieces and targets of water and energy reduction are important, the balance and interaction of all the sustainable choices and practices are what need to be considered. Sustainability measurements and efforts need to go beyond the easily measured elements to provide a more holistic process that include on-site and off-site ecology, human health, as well as providing inspiration and exemplary education. Conservation planning, sustainable landscape design and maintenance, and ecological health are becoming easier to consider, and the tools for measuring these elements are developing constantly. The development of Whole Measures, the Living Site and Infrastructure Challenge, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and the Star Community Index star will all help forward the holistic sustainability practices that include buildings, landscape, infrastructure, and community.
The campus landscape is a key element in the schools identity. Many are designed by respected designers as these campuses are often a place of local identity and pride. So now is the time to embrace sustainability holistically on campus and think about greening the campus green. Universities and colleges can teach a great deal through curricula, but potentially even more by example.