SF State News {University Communications}

Image: Photos of SF State students and scenes from around campus

Rethinking campus lawns

Oct. 15 , 2010 -- Expansive green lawns are staples on nearly every college campus in the country, and in the past year, SF State has become a leader in rethinking that paradigm, finding alternative plantings that require less water and maintenance, and lower capital investment for landscape renovations.

A photo of hooker's evening primrose on the SF State campus.

Hooker's evening primrose, a native plant near the Science building. Photo by Jacqueline Sarratt

Campus Grounds has undertaken lawn conversion projects near the Gym, Humanities building and along 19th Ave. near the Science building, allowing grasses in these areas to grow unfettered, while being watered just once per week. Grounds workers have also added native plants like huckleberry, lupine, yarrow and willow in an effort to attract birds and pollinators. In three areas, pesticides, fertilizers and mowing have been eliminated. Next up: experiments with further reducing water use.

"We had succeeded with the old model of landscaping with beautiful manicured lawns and gardens and trees." said Phil Evans, director of Campus Grounds. "However, it's resource intensive. It takes lots of inputs from the outside and at a macro level, some of our urban biology -- like birds and pollinators -- has really suffered. The paradigm has changed. We are now redefining urban land stewardship as creating complex landscapes with intricate ecological webs."

Grounds staffers Hanne Madsen, Baudelio Enriquez, Erasmo Flores, Ricardo Martinez and graduate biology student Jacqueline Sarratt collaborated on the project to reduce water use, increase campus biodiversity and bring back native species. 

"The unmowed lawns provide food and shelter for local wildlife," Sarratt said. "In a larger sense, this demonstrates a more sustainable alternative to lawns and helps to draw attention to the need to conserve resources such as water and fossil fuels."

Though lawns in little-used areas are visually appealing, they are far from sustainable, requiring attention, fossil fuel use, water, fertilizers and occasionally pesticides to stay green. According to the National Wildlife Federation, approximately 50 to 70 percent of residential water is used for landscaping. Habitat loss because of urbanization is also a leading cause of species extinction, and the campus is transitioning to practices that help to mitigate some of these effects.

Moving forward, Campus Grounds plans to stop mowing grass areas along the path between the Science building and Thornton and Hensill Hall, and construct a rain garden to catch water from the Science building roof and redirect it from the storm drain into the landscape to resupply ground water. Evans is also seeking to coordinate with science classes to quantify differences in biodiversity after letting the lawns grow.

Though these areas appear to be overgrown, Sarratt said that taller growth now provides valuable habitat by creating cover for birds and insects, and food in the form of nectar, pollen, seeds and fruit. The project is also a way for members of the campus community to see sustainable practices at work on campus. 

"The experimenting becomes knowledge we can share with the larger community," Evans said. "We're a university and we have a platform and lots of resources, so we said, 'let's model the future of sustainability and advance that knowledge curve as far as we can.'"

For more information about campus sustainability projects, visit: http://www.sfsu.edu/~sustain/

-- Michael Bruntz


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