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Environment 101

Well-maintained campus grounds can be a recruitment tool as effective as academic strengths are for education institutions. Yet, maintaining school grounds can be costly. And the environment may pay the steepest price.

Many ways exist to make a campus beautiful and environmentally sound. With the proper knowledge and the right materials, facilities administrators can bring school grounds up to par, benefit the environment, and save time and money.

Stay natural

Most facilities administrators know that maintaining manicured campus lawns can require extensive expenditures. What they may not be aware of is that it also may be an environmentally unsound approach to landscape development. To look their best, lawns often need large quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticide — water that otherwise would be used for drinking and chemicals that disrupt nature's ecological process. In addition, the chemicals in fertilizers may pollute ground water, and pesticides kill bugs that help balance the environment.

One alternative is to plant native wildflowers and meadow grasses, and allow low areas of grass to grow, cutting down on both water usage and fertilizers. Also, by using integrated pest management (IPM) — the process of seeking out only the infected areas to treat with pesticides rather than blanketing lawns and plantings with chemicals — facilities administrators can limit potential pollution.

Don't overlook natural beauty. What some may consider “beautiful” is not always environmentally sound. Much can be learned from observing how nature takes care of its own. When grass turns brown in the summer from lack of rain, it is not dying; it has stopped growing until more favorable conditions return. Rather than inundating lawns with fertilizer and water, groundskeepers should allow nature to run its normal course. The work and time saved also benefits a school's bottom line.

Think native

When beautifying campus grounds with plants, schools should remember that some species are more tolerant of specific ecosystems than others. Instead of importing plant species from other environments, which may require an extraordinary level of care in order to thrive, consider using native plant materials that already are adapted to local conditions and will flourish without major use of fertilizers, water and pesticides.

Maintenance requirements vary widely for plants. To save on maintenance, plants should be grouped with those that have the same cultural requirements. These ecological groupings allow school groundskeepers to use the minimum amount of water and fertilizer necessary to keep these plants healthy. This approach veers away from the standard “foundation plantings,” in which many varieties of plants are combined to achieve a decorative effect, often at the expense of environmentally friendly practices.

Trees and vegetation contribute to a campus' distinctive character. When planted strategically around buildings, trees provide shade, cool surrounding areas and reduce air-conditioning demands. Trees planted near campus walkways can diminish the effect of emissions from cars by filtering pollution from the air. Planting shade trees adjacent to parking lots reduces the “heat sink” or the natural heat transfer that takes place when parking lots transmit heat to surrounding areas.

Groundskeepers can improve their soils by composting leaves and grass clippings instead of collecting them in plastic bags and disposing of them at landfills. Through composting, the leaves break down and go back into the soil, making it rich for plant growth and assisting in the retention of soil moisture. Composting also cuts back on the work required in carting the bags of leaves from the area, and it creates soil as well as organic fertilizer for the next growing season. If a groundskeeper cannot use the organic materials produced on site, many municipalities have facilities to produce mulch for local use and may be interested in a donation from a local school.

Pavement problems

One method to improve stormwater management is by using minimal amounts of pavement. Developments with sizable amounts of pavement and other impervious surface materials prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground and interrupt the natural water flow. To reduce contamination and flooding, costly stormwater-management systems must be designed and installed. One solution is to replace asphalt pavement with more permeable materials, but these materials can be pricey.

Draining stormwater does not have to drain wallets. Efficient roadway and parking design can affordably reduce stormwater runoff and lessen water pollution. Designing a site with shorter roads and smaller parking areas will save on materials and installation, and will allow water to flow naturally. This will diminish the need for expensive stormwater-management systems.

The decrease in paved roadways and parking, and the trend toward a walking campus culture also fulfills a “green” objective for education institutions. As pavement turns to open space, stormwater management is improved drastically. Water infiltrates into the ground rather than running off into the municipal storm-drainage system, thus reducing contamination and flooding. And fewer drivers translate into a decrease in pollution from vehicle exhaust, improved air quality on campus and more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Practice makes perfect

By following the green site-development practices listed below, facilities administrators can protect the environment and save money:

  • Use only the amount of water necessary to keep a plant healthy

    This will save the environment and the plant. Irrigation systems often over-water and require regular monitoring. Short-term watering programs for early-stage plantings will greatly reduce initial costs for irrigation equipment, as well as long-term system maintenance costs.

  • Incorporate a recycling program for wasted materials

    This decreases the demand for new resources, thus protecting the environment.

  • Use recycled materials in education programs to reduce the use of new resources

    Many products are manufactured from pre-used materials at competitive prices. Recycled plastic often is used for site furniture, and recycled wood can be used for decks and other outdoor structures.

  • Be resourceful with site lighting

    It is important to use only the necessary amount of light, directed efficiently and controlled “smartly.” Replacing lighting with more efficient light sources will benefit the campus environment, and save money on electric and maintenance costs.

Being more environmentally responsible does not necessarily require additional labor or money, but it does require a shift in priorities and expectations of what a “beautiful” landscape is. Administrators should have an open mind and a willingness to make a difference. The benefits these tactics provide to the environment are more than worth the effort and would earn any school administration an A+ in “Environment 101.”

Pryor, ASLA, is a partner at Geller DeVellis Inc., a landscape architecture and civil engineering firm based in Boston.

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