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.