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The grassy quad: Does this campus-life emblem need to go?

Dan Farber, professor of law | July 7, 2014

When I picture a university, I immediately envision the quad: an area of grass and trees surrounded by campus buildings.

But those beautiful lawns may need to go. That would be a bit sad, and not just because the students could lose a place to sunbathe and play frisbee. The quad could still be a campus focal point, and it might still be a place of beauty, but it won’t look the same.

These thoughts were triggered by three chance occurrences within a few days of each other. Last week, I received a reprint of Sarah Schindler’s article, “Banning Lawns.” I had seen her present the paper previously, but hadn’t given it much thought recently. Her article points out that “conventional turfgrass is a non-native monocrop that contributes to a loss of biodiversity and typically requires vast amounts of water, pesticides, and gas-powered mowing.

I probably wouldn’t have connected her argument with university quads, except for a comment by our new Interim Executive Director, Areca Smith. Areca said she had been surprised to see that Berkeley was still maintaining such large lawns during a severe drought. Then yesterday, The New York Times carried an article about the failure of Californians to reduce water use during our extreme drought.

I realize that there may be practical problems to making the change. Universities would have to find hardy new plants that could thrive locally without expensive maintenance or watering. Landscaping would have to take into account a variety of possible uses for the area, and students might need different kinds of spaces for casual recreation.

And some of us would have to live with our nostalgia for the quads of the past. There would be transition costs, although over time money would be saved from reduced use of water, pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuels for mowing. But going down this road would not only have direct benefits for the environment, it would also provide demonstration projects about how other public spaces could be similarly redesigned.

Lawns are becoming scarce in my neighborhood as the drought continues and as people realize the aesthetic appeal of other kinds of plantings. (Admittedly, most lawns were small to begin with, which makes the transition easier.) In parts of the Southwest, xerciscapes have been replacing lawns on a broader scale in many communities.

Universities may find themselves going down this path, leaving the traditional quad a thing of the past.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “The grassy quad: Does this campus-life emblem need to go?

  1. While I appreciate the concern for water conservation during the current drought conditions, I would distinguish home lawns and gardens from public venues like the University’s grass areas.

    In a concrete bastion, overbuilt to meet the needs of a burgeoning campus and research demands, the few grass areas are a reprieve for our students, faculty and staff from the sterile and cold areas that dominate the campus. It is also a place of reprieve for the general public that often visits “buildings in a park,” the moniker from one of the campus updates of its master plan.

    Please do not let the ideologues who want to transform the campus into a more barren environment use a superficial argument regarding conservation of water in this particular setting to win the day.

  2. THANK YOU for bringing this up finally! As a College of Natural Resources/Genetics and Plant Biology student, I’ve been irritated by those lawns ever since I arrived.

    I am delighted by the native plantings in the smaller areas, and would love to see those continue. I don’t think that’s appropriate for the quad though; like you said, it’s a central social place.

    Fortunately, you can still have a short green expanse without a water-slurping monoculture – there are plenty of low-growing meadow plants that would make a pleasant blend (such as yarrow, violets, thinner-bladed grasses, etc.). Establishing them would be the hardest part. The quad gets trampled several times a year.

  3. Keep the lawns! Lawns are usually a waste because they are looked at, but not used, while unnecessarily consuming water; Cal’s lawns are well used and appreciated by most folks. These lawns serve their purpose!

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