Natural landscaping on a college campus
It's time to start planting some flowers. (Image via Unsplash)

Natural Landscaping: Why College Campuses Should Embrace It

The ornamental gardens of many college campuses provide no ecological help, but implementing native plants would add beauty and aid the environment.

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Natural landscaping on a college campus

The ornamental gardens of many college campuses provide no ecological help, but implementing native plants would add beauty and aid the environment.

The average college campus can claim either between 100 or 27,000 acres of land. For many, these large areas host considerable green spaces in the form of gardens, parks and ornamentation. These green spaces are used, by and large, for the betterment of the student body, but they offer the potential to benefit more than just students. They’re also valuable members of our ecology through the adoption of natural landscaping.

The history of campus green spaces starts with the very first university systems. Unlike today, early universities were in competition with established monasteries and small church-run scholastic institutions.

As attending a university was considered a privileged activity for only the urban nobility, priest-class and an exceptional handful of lower-class prodigies, private universities began to acquire and cultivate the surrounding land around their campuses to rival the splendor of their monastery competitors.

It was thought that well-manicured lawns and rolling parks would create an aura of authority and wealth comparable to older and richer organizations. It worked, and in a matter of decades, these relatively new and upstart institutions were rivaling the church in influence.

Unsurprisingly, campus green spaces serve the same exact function today. A cursory glance at some of America’s top schools will reveal a shared sense of aesthetics: long patches of green, cut grass with a sparse spattering of trees, usually oak. It’s elegant for sure, and just like nearly a thousand years ago, serves its purpose well.

Studies have shown that students are inherently attracted to this “campus” style of landscaping, associating it with higher learning and relaxation. Whether this is because they’ve been influenced by centuries of art and media depicting the stereotypical Ivy League school as possessing such qualities, or something about the aesthetic is inherently pleasing, is debatable.

What isn’t debatable is that such spaces — though pretty — are the urban equivalent of ecological dead zones. They look healthy and green, and things should live there, but very few things do. The fact is that ornamental gardens and parks serve little to no ecological function, and in fact can act as net-negatives in native insect and bird populations. This is because outside of looking pretty, campus green spaces are made up of flora that exist and grow outside of the local ecology’s life cycle.

As much as we may hate them, insects are vital to our existence. They are the backbone of almost every single type of biome, be it plains, forests and even deserts. As you are no doubt aware by now, the world is facing a bit of a crisis when it comes to the health of these underappreciated overachievers. The “Insect Apocalypse” is upon us — the rapid and global collapse of almost all the world’s insect population — and no one seems to know why.

Actually, we do. We’ve known for a while now. Habitat destruction for agricultural and urban use has been highly correlated with declines. The reality is that despite seeming to be endless in number, insects need things to eat and places to breed.

Some of the most valuable ecological real estate has been taken over by farms and metropolitan areas, and the diversity of the plants in these areas are dismal. Besides opportunistic pests like ants and cockroaches, most insects have very strict diets and may have evolved around just one type of plant, which may not be found for miles in an urban setting.

Fortunately, even urban areas have large tracts of arable land in the form of suburbs, parks and university campuses. In fact, universities hold some of the largest tracts of land in most cities, usually right behind the local government itself. Green space, as discussed before, takes up a good chunk of said land, and can provide a sanctuary for vulnerable flora and fauna.

This might sound optimistic, but studies have shown that local insect and bird populations can recover sharply when large “islands” of native flora are reintroduced into their area. These islands might not get the populations back up to pre-urbanized levels, but they provide an invaluable service in the conservation of native species and the overall health of the city.

This is no longer the middle ages. Gardens and lawns aren’t particularly hard to maintain and their use as a status symbol isn’t required to compete with monasteries. What college campuses need is diversity of ecology on campus, and to do that, they must drop the practice of ornamental gardening.

Natural landscaping does come with some disadvantages, at least in the short term. Some people find native wildflowers and grasses to be too messy looking. They don’t grow in neat lines and they aren’t particularly dazzling when out of season.

However, natural landscaping is extremely energy and resource efficient. The landscapes are cheaper to maintain and are essentially self-sufficient because they are made up entirely of plants that have evolved to live and thrive in their environment.

Native plants like sage, mountain laurel and countless species of wildflower are breathtaking when allowed to grow and prosper naturally. Most importantly, natural landscaping requires little to no pesticides because it works with and promotes insects, and isn’t in competition with them.

It is time for students and faculty to stop idolizing the rolling green lawns and oaks and come to see the beauty of diversity in the environment that surrounds them.

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