Gone with the Green Space

Illustration by Maggie Dybas

Work hard, play harder. This seems to be the mantra for many college students. It’s difficult to play, though, when so many spaces seem to have been absorbed into developed land — parking lots, buildings, sidewalks and more.

These green spaces are the backbone of outdoor enthusiasm. Well-positioned green space can draw out students to enjoy the fresh air and time in the sun (or clouds, here in Rochester). Second year Environmental Sustainability Health and Safety major Kelly Thompson explained how she defines green space. 

“Green space, to me, is open space without any man-made structure that obstructs the utility of the area,” said Thompson.

Thompson is also the former Student Government sustainability committee chair, and has worked to improve sustainability for years before coming to RIT. She continues to do so with involvement in the Student Environmental Action League and other organizations and personal endeavors.

Typically those in her discipline and other environmentalists define green space as all undeveloped land, like the woodland and marshes around campus. Thompson recognizes though, that these are more brown than green. While environmentally friendly, these areas don't have much use to the student body at large without some modification. On the other hand, the “manicured green spaces” on campus, as Thompson put them, offer a host of uses. But, these areas are starting to diminish.

Where Has it all Gone?

Visible green space around campus has seen an apparent drop recently; especially with the addition of the MAGIC Center. However, as Enid Cardinal, the senior sustainability adviser to the president, pointed out, much of the space now occupied by MAGIC was once a parking lot. The green space that was there has also been replaced, moving to the side of MAGIC. 

“It’s always a juggling act ... in trying to meet the needs that the campus has from an academic perspective and for student life, as well as the natural areas that are around us,” Cardinal said.

She acknowledges that the future computing security building that is to be constructed adjacent to Golisano Hall will very likely change the aesthetic and greenery in that area. The impact, however, is being managed through the addition or enhancement of green spaces elsewhere on campus.

The most significant blow to greenery on campus, however, is quite possibly one that RIT has little control over. The emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle from northeastern Asia, has taken to boring into and eating the ash trees on and around campus. Given that approximately 25 percent of trees in Monroe County are varieties of ash, according to Cardinal, this invasion has the potential to decimate the tree population both on campus and across the area. Additionally, the emerald ash borer has no natural predators in the area.

While we have an inordinate amount of evergreens on our campus to counterbalance the loss of ash trees in the region, this poses other risks and negative effects.

“What we’ve used is a lot of monoculture for our trees when we landscape around buildings in the past,” Cardinal said. “They’ve [Facilities Management Services (FMS)] gotten a lot better in recent years in changing and increasing the biodiversity in the trees, but oftentimes because evergreens grow faster, we plop those in ...”

Increasing the biodiversity of trees on campus can lead to a healthier and more resilient ecosystem, as well as a more aesthetically-pleasing campus.

“What we should be doing going forward is thinking about being more intentional about the types of trees and shrubbery and landscaping that we’re planting ...” Cardinal stated. “... so that it can enhance multiple aspects of campus and not necessarily just provide shade and not necessarily just be a windbreak.”

Improvements in Progress

Already, improvements are being made to campus greenery. Various landscaping projects are underway to better present the campus as a place of recreation just as much as a place of academic rigor.

From the environmental side of things, Cardinal noted that a wetlands conservatory was created near the RIT Observatory. Because it is so distant from the main areas of campus, the conservatory has gone unnoticed by many students, though the same cannot be said of the wildlife.

“A couple of years ago a student went back there and did a video of the wetlands for me [and] there were five or six great blue herons back there,” Cardinal said. “So, there’s a lot of nature that people don’t necessarily see right around us.”

Additionally, many smaller, unusable green spaces have been converted to be more biodiverse. These spaces, such as the thin grass strips between parking lots, are slowly becoming the new home of trees, shrubbery and flowerbeds, further beautifying and diversifying the campus.

One project to note was the beautification of many entrances into RIT, as the roads were lined with pollinator strips. These strips, which are basically rows of flowering plants, were planted this spring. Due to the cold and unusually high amounts of snow, however, Cardinal is unsure if they will germinate. 

On the daily routine side of things, FMS is also tackling ways to decrease costs in relation to maintenance of greenery. By converting smaller manicured green spaces into wilder, flora-filled spaces, the need to mow and therefore the demand for fuel has seen a noteworthy decrease, as has the number of labor hours payable for land maintenance. 

Grounds crews are also utilizing integrated pest management processes. When possible, they will utilize natural tools to maintain a balanced ecosystem. These tools could include the management of predator populations, use of mulches to promote specific plant growth and the use of natural oils rather than pesticides to control pests.

When necessary though, crews will still utilize pesticides. However, these pesticides are used in a heavily-localized manner to ensure their environmental and ecological impacts are minimal outside of their intended use.

While visible green space has certainly seemed to decline, the reality is much more complex. With efforts from RIT's sustainability organizations as well as FMS helping to ensure the campus remains a green space, the impacts of development will be minimized. Additionally, as Thompson pointed out, students can help to lead these efforts.

“I would recommend going to [Student Government] Sustainability Committee meetings,” she said. “It’s actually your best bet to get in touch with [the] administration, as we usually have someone from FMS and Sustainability ... there and they often are more than willing to hear your ideas.”

The conservation of green space cannot be left to others alone. Its loss impacts us all and we all have a stake in its preservation so we all must work to maintain it.