Good News – Campus Lawns are Controversial!


We knew this was coming – the great lawns of college campuses are being challenging on environmental grounds.  As Mark Hough, Duke's landscape architect, says in a recent issue of Landscape Archiecture Magazine, "Everyone now knows that high-maintenance turf must be
questioned."  And "The use of lawn is being cast as the villain in the minds of many."  That's enough for Stanford's landscape architect to get her dander up but good:  "I see nothing wrong with the university greens, even in drought-stricken California," she protests. "I also resent the assumption by many landscape architects and others that lawn equals bad." The Collegiate Turf War has begun!

And being located in a desert doesn't stop some colleges from defending their lawn. The University of Arizona's landscaper-in-charge defends their large turf mall as "the center of campus and highly valued by students and alumni."  In their defense, he says they're (at least) now using reclaimed water, not the potable stuff. 

Oh, those controversial meadows!
At UNC-Chapel Hill they removed "underutilized or unneeded lawns" and replaced them with "sustainable planting areas and reforestation".  And at Rutgers they're replacing lawn with "low or no-mow areas", which the author tells us have been "warmly embraced in concept, though issues do sometimes arise when they are actually installed."  The guy in charge sums up the "issues" this way: "People don't really understand what meadows actually look like.  Northeastern U.S. meadows are mostly grasses, not wildflowers.  But that isn't what people want to see."

At Duke, about which the author has direct experience, the contract designer proposed keeping ceremonial area lawn and turning the rest of the site into a hierarchy of "native meadows" that would be allowed to "go back to nature".  Duke staff were presented with "beautiful images of wildflower meadows in full bloom" and at first, the bulbs looked great, and they were followed by spring and summer perennials.  "However, after a couple more seasons went by, these supposedly carefree plantings became overrun with volunteer invasive species, and the exceedingly complicated matrix of plants became too much for the grounds crews to properly maintain.  While an advocate for this responsible and didactic display of sustainable site design, I found myself questioning the practicality of what we had installed.  For just how sustainable is a landscape that cannot be efficiently maintained?"  

Complaints were heard about the appearance of the meadow, which unfortunately looked its best during the summer when nobody saw it, so it was ripped out and replaced with fescue sod and some canopy trees.  The author concludes that Duke's case "effectively displays the complicated issues involved at the institutional level that may not be readily apparent to those on the outside."

(Apparently designers have been turning to meadows in order to rack up points toward LEED certification.  In that costly endeavor, native plants are considered "low-hanging fruit".)

Preserving history while going green?
Sustainable landscaping may seem incompatible with preservation of historic landscapes, but the folks at UNC/Chapel Hill are determined to make theirs more sustainable, with help from Michael Dirr and hot landscape architect James Urban. The transformation starts with improving soils so that trees and lawns can be managed more responsibly.

Even Harvard Yard is changing.  It's the site of a much-publicized pilot program of using compost to improve soil structure and drainage, again to make the lawn easier to care for. The author contends that "such maintenance measures need to be promoted to show that ongoing support for these lawns does not contradict larger goals toward sustainability."  Even ardent lawn-haters have to agree that managing them more responsibly is a good thing, right?

So what about the most famous lawn on any American campus – the
Jefferson-designed Great Lawn at the University of Virginia? It's
super-historic, but they
seem to have found a compromise.  They're irrigating just 1% of the
lawn – the most historic bit – and letting the rest go dormant during
periods of drought.  They report that people are dealing with brown turfgrass – imagine that.

Sustainable Sites to the Rescue
Finally, the author opines that the Sustainable Sites Initiative will be great for campus landscapes (better than LEED standards) because it endorses the value of cultural landscapes explicitly and gives credit for protecting and maintaining cultural and historical places. Also, LEED applies only to individual buildings, though there's a LEED for whole campuses in the offing.

Hey, change is coming, and it's all good.

Photo of Great Lawn at U.Va. by Rendezvous CP.


  1. I think it’s great that it’s a debate. I see good coming from all this. I do like lawn, by the way, but not at the current expense. Come up with a healthy way for keeping these massive one on campuses, etc, and I’m all for it.

  2. What about golf courses? Wasn’t golf originally played in pastures? Now THAT would make golf more entertaining to watch, John Daley’s pants notwithstanding!

  3. It’s true that meadows aren’t a good lawn replacement in that they are often the most labor intensive form of planting. I have read the books of a few garden designers who have admitted this to be the case. A meadow is often too inviting for natives and endemic undesirables. But while it isn’t feasible for a large scale planting, I don’t think it’s beyond the reach of a smaller home garden.

    This will be considered blasphemous, but are any of these people considering artificial turf?

  4. I do think we need to rethink the lawn wherever it is virtually unused, or just there for aesthetics. Just reconsider the costs and decide if those lawns are worth keeping.

    Many college lawns however get a lot of use by students, and I wouldn’t say fall into this category…

  5. Lawns have their place, and it seems to me that a University is one of the best places for them. It’s an ideal place for students to congregate, to study, to relax. I remember that it was usually much more peaceful than the student union and even the library.

    But sure, if the lawn is not used for anything but to invoke a feeling a grandeur, then perhaps it’s best replaced with something more sustainable.

  6. I have to second Laura’s comment — lawns do have their place. Ohio State has a expanse of tree-studded lawn called “The Oval” which is THE social center of campus in warm weather. Sure, it isn’t imput-free, but compared to the ecological footprint of gyms, stadiums, and all the other buildings, I think some lawn has its place. Though probably not in Arizona.

  7. A minor correction: U.Va.’s lawn is called just the Lawn, not the Great Lawn. Sorry, but we’re kinda picky about that kind of thing at Mr. Jefferson’s University.

    And just to confuse things further, the campus is referred to as the Grounds. BTW, the expanse of lawn–barren as it is–is more than compensated for by the fabulous pavilion gardens that line it to the east and west.

    And since playing WWJD (What Would Jefferson Do) is a perennial pastime down here, I’d hazard that TJ would be open to the idea of at least a partial meadow taking up some of the Lawn’s real estate, with maybe a big, ol’ veggie garden thrown in for good measure.

  8. Great to see the lawn debate continuing here on Rant. Once more I see misunderstanding of the purpose of lawns and meadows. Lawns are great where practical such as The Lawn at UVA (my alma mater) though other areas of The U. might be better served as naturalistic meadows – that do NOT have to be designed for high maintenance, if folk get over the “neatness” thing in favor of habitat and earth friendly.

    While this member of the Lawn Reform Coalition “wondering about lawns in the East”, will someone rant about mowing lawns that don’t need it ?! I am on vacation in The East, it is hot and dry and the mow and blow services are still running their riding mowers all over the nearly dormant lawns ??? Lawn mowers spewing unnecessary carbon into the air for lawns that are not even growing…

  9. These lawns are being used by students. They’re a critical element in giving them some outdoor space to study. I’m all for eliminating lawns just about everywhere and for making your lawn more sustainable, but campus lawns are generally high use areas.
    I say save the lawns.

  10. even in the desert. UNiversity of Nevada Las Vegas’ lawns are just as highly used as those in Michigan or California. No one wants to sit on gravel just because their school is in the desert.

  11. I was thinking about my college, and realized a lot of the expanses of lawn were used. There really isn’t a good replacement for many expanses of lawn. I was also pleased that some unused areas were slowly disappearing. I think one problem colleges have is that the landscape is very large.

  12. I was a student at California State University Northridge when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994. Northridge had a lot of lovely green lawns for intramural football and baseball games between campus clubs, and band practice, since there was a nice lawn outside the Music Building near the heart of the campus. When the quake hit, the green space was immediately converted to space to house many, MANY trailers for impromptu classrooms since over half the building on campus were yellow and red tagged. The only buildings not red or yellow tagged were the PE Building and the new Communications building, and even the Engineering building as not exactly green tagged, but was still usable for the semester.

    If it wasn’t for that green space, the whole school (a school of 30,000 students) would have had to shut down for at least a semester, possibly years until new buildings were built. Because of large, flat areas, trailers were brought in and the semester only started two weeks late.

    All that green space was ruined, but it was a worthy sacrifice to use it for educational purposes.

    If that space wasn’t grass and was turned into gardens, how quickly could trailers be brought in and set up? That area would not be flat and level.

    So grassy area, in the event of a disaster, can serve the community for a greater purpose. Emergency tents set up by the Red Cross and National Guard to house people in the event of floods, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes. The green spaces may seem like a waste, but once in a while, they serve a greater purpose than looking pretty and hosting graduation ceremonies.

  13. Some lawn is nice…particularly where big public buildings and spaces are present.

    One might try Buffalo Grass or Blue Grama Grass; while not suitable for every use and climate, those or similar grasses would certainly be lower-maintenance.

  14. I hope that they will always have a green lawn in these places. It is sad that people think any differently. I am glad that you are out there looking out for these off the way things to get us involved.

  15. Look here TROLL. If you want to save your grASS from annihilation you better start offering real solutions to real problems. Time to come out from under your imaginary bridge filled with minor dictator wannabes and deal with the world as it actually exists.

    This issue really draws more fleck and spittle than it warrants. The simple fact of the matter is a lawn need not be toxic or overly high maintenance. They don’t need chemicals. They can live on half or no additional water depending on climate and grass species. Just mow what comes up only when it needs it and be done with it. The main problem is one of a forced ideal of what a lawn should look like.

    As for meadows it really depends upon what the definition of a meadow is. Your typical person I think would view a meadow as a pasture type field with a high number of wildflowers. A farmer would see that as a hay field gone bad. How is that look maintained in either case? By mowing. Mowing keeps the trees and taller wildflowers like goldenrod, asters, thistles and ironweed at bay. Fling out shorter annual and perennial wildflower seeds in your lawn and mow it twice a year. It just does not need to be made so difficult.

  16. at UC Davis, they handle their extensive lawns by flood-irrigating them most days of the week – both rotting out the many drought-tolerant oaks on campus and making it hard to find a dry place to sit for lunch.

    an excellent use of water in a very dry part of the West…

  17. I don’t really have too many issues with lawn just in the way it cared for. I wish more homeowners would boycott the mow and go services. They are mostly uneducated (and have no reason to become educated) and very low paid and really care nothing for the environment. They’ll run those blowers just to pick a crumb or two of soil or one leaf when a broom or rake would have been faster. I had one call me a nasty name in Spanish today when I asked him nicely at my client’s next door neighbor (they share a garden on both sides of the property) to pull at least some the weeds and not weed whip into a green mess. It seems homeowners have more of a vested interest to water less and take care of things better when they have to do it not the mow and go guys. These guys are the biggest polluters in the green industry.

  18. I do not know why they are even talking about this. They should be working on something more important than trying to get rid of the green grass.

  19. Christopher NC: I do deal with the world as it is not the imaginary change people like you think you are purveying through your hubris and holier than thou I know how to walk upon the earth better than anyone else.

    Lawns have become the new “White Male” in the form of things to protest.

    Dictator? Look in the friggin mirror! It is people like you who are trying to tell people what they should do in their gardens.

    I defend their rights to do it.

    Next time you fertilze your organic garden/lawn or whatever ask yourself this. What is really in the manure, animal tankage etc on that that green bag on goody two shoe, touchy feely fert. The manure, bone meal, tankage etc is probably loaded with steroids, growth hormones and anti-biotics from the factoy farm the animals came from.

    And consider this, I do not use chemicals in my garden unless it is a last resortand never do on herbs. In fact I have let 2/3 of my yard grow wild because 1) I don’t have time to mow it. 2) It makes a great economical privacy barrier to keep eco warriors from seeing what I do in MY BACK YARD and 3)I have attracted so many benficial insects I rarely have to spray an organic control let alone chemicals.

    Once again I have proven my point. My end does not justify your means and that is what really pi$$es you off. My gardens are 99% organic but I don’t wave the eco warrior flag about it


    The TROLL

  20. “Lawns have become the new “White Male” in the form of things to protest.”

    That says it all. Poor poor Greg. You are such a martyr for the cause. I know it is hard to watch White Male Supremacy slip through your fingers, but you’ll live. It will be ok.

  21. Grass definitely accommodates lots of different activity and surely has its place.
    But the issues may be about maintenance (irrigation, chemical pesticides & fertilizers, mowing frequency). Along with those are the precise expectations of what make a lawn look presentable within a certain climate.
    And if a lawn is for viewing only, aren’t there acceptable alternative groundcovers to provide a carpet of green with less environmental impact?

  22. I was just talking to the sports turf manager at UNH about how the University is transitioning all of their athletic fields and turf to an organic approach. He told me that this was largely in part to pressure from student interest groups raising awareness about the perils of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The truth is, and this particular manager would reiterate it, that caring for turf without the use of chemicals and pesticides is actually as easy and effective as a chemically intensive approach. For some reason, the chemical lawn care services continue to react with irrational anger towards this. (The New White Male?????) This is not a case of the government or political correctness taking away a right, it’s just common sense. Of course, I’m biased because our company Firebelly Lawn Care offers chemical free solutions to having a nice lawn, even if it’s a giant swath of turf in the center of a campus.
    -Tom Kelly

  23. I would agree that at least some lawn on many college campuses should be desirable, but with modifications to its care to be more environmentally sustainable. Certainly, you’d want some area for casual sports, etc. My own college, however, didn’t have much in the way of these great swaths of lawn, so there are definitely better ways of creating outdoor spaces for studying meeting. My own campus had several landscaped outdoor patio areas with lots of seating that always got way more traffic and interaction than any of our lawn areas and were really much more practical for things like studying or meeting for lunch in addition to requiring less water, etc. This is probably a much better model for campuses in desert areas.

  24. I see suburban and public building lawns these days and they make me cringe: waste of land, water, time and resources, not to mention problems with pesticides, etc. My question is: during our time, when we know about enviromental degradation, poverty, and more important, when we know there are adults and children going hungry in every community–how can we justify so many lawns? Communities need more vegetable gardens as part of sustainable landscaping. The benefits are huge: adults and learn lifelong skills, people contribute locally grown foods to food banks, the community eats better, our carbon footprint becomes smaller as we slip away from dependence on agri-business–and we regain so much wonder, enjoy new relationships within our community, and take personal responsibility for helping to eradicate local hunger as we share our bounty with food banks, people we know need more and better food, etc. I give real kudos to the owner of the lawn care company, but I think it would be also better all around if he could offer “organic garden coaching and maintenance” to help busy people have a bountiful, sustainable garden.

    Obviously, my decision (along with my two neighbors here in Bellingham, WA) to garden rather than to keep a lawn meant a big committment of time and resources. This year, we completed a three year process of digging up our three entire lawns and we now raise vegetables, fruits and flowers. But it’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s rewarding! It builds friendships! And it’s heartwarming. For me, it’s a much better use of my time on earth than maintaining a lawn. And I believe it would be a much better choice for public and private organizations to begin developing plans, building relationships, and setting aside 10% – 25% of their lawns to sustainable organic gardens. It does a community a world of good.

  25. Green lawns are fine and an integral part of student social time. However, if they knew the stuff that was applied to the lawns would they be so eager to lounge and sprawl out on it? Organics is the only way to go. It takes time, patience and tolerance, but it’s worth it.

    Also, to the author, people who take care of grounds have titles and names. Calling someone “the guy in charge” is demeaning and not in line with the education and hard work that goes into the profession of grounds management.

  26. I think I went to the same college as MECM – not much lawn but lots of shady patios for gathering or quiet study.

    When replacing lawn with trees and shrubs on campuses, security issues have to be taken into account. Ogres prefer hidden spaces to do their dirty work.

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