A student walking out the front doors of a residence hall at almost any college campus in the United States may be met with an expanse of bright green, freshly clipped and fertilized grass. The familiar quad is a symbol of the American collegiate experience, providing a space to stroll, study, or relax in between classes. However, it may not be as idealistic of an image when we investigate what really goes into maintaining these acres of perfectly manicured grass.
In the United States, grass lawns occupy about 40 million acres of land and require consistent care that negates any potential environmental benefits of the green space. A study published by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans use 30-60% of the urban fresh water supply on grass lawns. Not only do these lawns take exorbitant amounts of water to stay green, the fuel used to power lawn equipment such as lawnmowers contributes to 5% of America’s total air pollution each year and fuel spills add up to more than 17 million gallons annually. Grass lawns in the United States have the potential to sequester between 12.5 and 95 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the adverse effects of lawn maintenance minimize their positive environmental impacts by harming the earth in other ways. Furthermore, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers exacerbates environmental issues, raising concerns among people who regularly visit these green spaces.
For college campuses in the United States––which have large environmental impacts associated with their dense populations, constant energy consumption, and immense amounts of waste disposal––altering something so simple as the existence of grass seems like a manageable way to improve overall sustainability. However, the way that grass lawns have been normalized and integrated so deeply into American culture makes it difficult to enact this type of change on a meaningful scale.
The antiquated yet persistent “American Dream” pictures a nuclear family living in a pristine house on a suburban street where each home looks exactly the same. There is a grass lawn in front of every house where the children play fetch with the dog. Each lawn is perfectly manicured, with grass no more than 3 inches tall planted by a landscaping company, regularly treated with pesticides, and watered by a sprinkler that never turns off. A house with an unruly lawn has become a symbol of poverty, negligence, and disorder. There are even laws in some cities criminalizing negligence of one’s lawn, mandating that grass on private or public property be no more than 6 inches tall. American colleges incorporate similar aesthetic values as a way to indirectly prove their legitimacy and reputability. Clean and orderly campuses attract more students who will appreciate their time there and become future benefactors, creating a cycle of wealth and prosperity for the institution.
While a manicured lawn symbolizes wealth and order, the sociological implications of lawn care extend beyond aesthetics. People employed by corporate landscaping companies, usually members of more vulnerable social groups, are expected to work under dangerous conditions for typically wealthier employers. Operating landscaping machinery, including leaf blowers and lawnmowers, can expose users to unsafe emissions.
Local landscaping companies generally take a more environmentally-friendly approach than large corporations. They tend to have smaller crews of workers and less equipment overall, so they need to distribute their resources and time more efficiently, meaning that they are less likely to use unnecessary machinery. Furthermore, to remedy issues associated with grass lawns, many small landscaping businesses in the United States are turning their focus toward more sustainable options such as rain gardens, moss gardens, and meadows full of native grasses and flowers.
The financial impacts of landscaping for colleges and universities in the US are also quite significant, considering that most of the land at these institutions is covered with grass lawns. Some colleges and universities in the United States spend upwards of $5,000 per acre of land per year on landscaping and maintenance services. For schools with large green spaces on campus, this can really add up. For example, North Carolina State University spent $2.5 million on grounds maintenance in a single fiscal year. As a school with nearly 1,000 acres of land to take care of, NCSU is one of the largest universities in the United States by area, and therefore is not the most accurate representation of a national average across all colleges and universities. However, when we look at Boston University, an urban campus that only covers 140 total acres with even less green space, we see that BU still spent over $120,000 on groundskeeping in 2018. Some environmentally conscious changes could potentially lower the costs and demand for labor on college campuses.
The financial and environmental costs of maintaining grass lawns are too burdensome, and students at universities across the country are beginning to push for change. A small organization called Re:wild Your Campus is spearheading an environmental movement across colleges in the US by encouraging students to pressure their administrators to take action. The organization was founded by two college students at University of California Berkeley, where they campaigned to get the chemical glyphosate banned from their campus. They launched eleven new campaigns on campuses across ten different states in 2022 alone, extending their reach and raising more awareness about collegiate sustainability.
The push for more sustainable landscaping on college campuses has already seen significant results. Since going organic in 2008, Harvard College has stopped using fertilizers and pesticides and has saved 2 million gallons of water each year due to reduced irrigation. The campus also began composting yard waste, eliminating their annual $35,000 cost for professional removal and further reducing costs by about $10,000 from foregone fertilizer expenses. Harvard is just one example of a successful transformation of a college campus, yet they still have a ways to go to ensure that they are incorporating native plants into their green spaces and reducing the amount of pure grass fields on their campus.
Other colleges can push for fully organic lawn care or take it even further to incorporate other eco-friendly features. Some schools have started employing alternatives to traditional grass lawns, not only to benefit the earth, but to diversify the education of landscaping students. The University of Arizona in Tucson has installed native plantings to represent the five biomes of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Allegheny College in Pennsylvania planted 20 species of native wildflowers on an acre of their land to create a low-maintenance meadow. Delta State University in Mississippi introduced a new policy requiring that native plants be prioritized for all future landscaping projects.
Some schools have also made sustainable strides in other notable directions. The University of Texas in Dallas renovated a large parking lot to plant several new trees, Boston University installed a student-managed rooftop garden on top of one of the residence halls, and Yale University developed an innovative rainwater and phytoremediation system which treats rainfall to reduce the campus’s overuse of potable water. These infrastructural changes contribute to environmental conservation. When such massive institutions take these steps, they employ a top-down approach to promote diverse green spaces and make it easier for others to follow their lead.
Students across America are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental responsibilities of their colleges and universities. By initiating movements that can make these massive institutions change their attitudes toward sustainability, they can become leaders in the push for a more environmentally conscious future. It is time for collegiate landscaping to move away from cookie-cutter grass lawns and towards more sustainable options that maximize the natural beauty and utility of campuses across the United States.
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