RIT’s Environment: Looking Beyond the Brick City
by Grace Blondell | published May. 5th, 2017
Most students, faculty, staff and even visitors have come to know RIT as Brick City. A 2010 RITPedia post holds the total number of bricks at a whopping 15,194,656 and to many, it was no surprise when our monochromatic campus was included in Travel+Leisure’s 2013 compilation of America’s "Ugliest College Campuses." However, RIT has not always been a brick city; in fact, as far as campuses go, it has an incredibly unique past that has contributed to some of the special environmental features it has today.
A History of the Institute
RIT’s founding date coincides with the formation of the Athenaeum in 1829, an academic and cultural society established by Nathaniel Rochester, as outlined in “History of RIT” on RIT's website. In 1847, the Athenaeum merged with another local group, the Mechanics Literary Association, to form the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Association. The new group continued a tradition of lectures and debates at Corinthian Hall and boasted talks by highly regarded speakers like Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1885, the Mechanics Institute was founded as a technical training school with all costs associated with running the school coming from community donations. Finally, in 1891, the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (RAMI) merged, bringing “cultural education and practical technical training” together.
The first official building erected by RAMI was the Manual Training Building in 1891, later called the Eastman Annex; it was joined by the Eastman Building seven years later. These early buildings occupied a city block in downtown Rochester, bounded by the Erie Canal, South Plymouth Avenue, Spring Street and South Washington Street. 3,000 students were enrolled in the school within five different departments by 1903: Industrial Arts, Mechanic Arts and Sciences, Manual Training, Domestic Science and Art and the Fine Arts. The institute adopted the name Rochester Institute of Technology in 1944, and in 1966 became the home campus of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. By this time, RIT had long outgrown its downtown facilities, and relocated to its current location in Henrietta in 1968.
Though RIT may be a hideous architectural nightmare to some, the beautifully groomed land around campus helps offset what many see as boring and ugly. In terms of manpower, Dave Harris, director of utilities for FMS, says that the institute employs 16 full-time and six part-time staff members within the Grounds Department for campus upkeep. Their annual budget is about $1.5 million.
“In addition, capital investments are made in terms of purchasing large equipment: trucks, highway snow plows, loaders, large mowers and maintaining the hardscape: paving walks, roads and [parking] lots,” said Harris.
Prior to being purchased by RIT, the “Super Block” (the land bounded by John Street, Bailey Road, River Road and Jefferson Road) was a farm. According to Harris, a small acreage is still leased out to a local farmer who alternates planting corn and soybeans and in some years, winter wheat. At some locations on campus, you can find remnants of its past as a farm, from apple trees dotting the landscape to rusty equipment resting in the woods by the main entrance.
Even before the property was used for agriculture, most of the land RIT now owns was wetlands.
“Pretty much everything that was off of the hill [that our campus buildings reside on] was a wetland a long time ago,” says Dr. Christy Tyler, a professor within the environmental science program.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that much of the land was drained for agricultural purposes. But Tyler notes that even today, wetlands are ubiquitous on campus.
“Most of the campus is pretty wet, at least part of the year ... In order for a piece of land to be classified as a wetland, it doesn’t have to be wet 365 days a year, it just has to be wet part of the year," he said.
The path leading through the woods from the Gene Polisseni Center to Grace Watson Hall, considered a forested wetland, experiences standing water seasonally. In the early spring, the land is flooded from the melting snow and heavy rainfall, but by the early summer the land is dry. Associate Professor Elizabeth Hane, from the School of Life Sciences, finds these forested wetlands the most intriguing because they are so important for wildlife. Salamanders, frogs and other types of amphibians lay their eggs in vernal pools in the spring, where they stay until they develop into adulthood, by which time the ground has dried out.
“For some people, they see it as sort of an eyesore that there’s standing water everywhere and it’s kind of a waste, but if you’re a frog or a salamander, it’s an important part of your life cycle,” Hane emphasizes.
“For some people, they see it as sort of an eyesore that there’s standing water everywhere, and it’s kind of a waste, but if you’re a frog or a salamander, it’s an important part of your life cycle,” Hane emphasizes.
Hane also mentions that this same wooded area between the tennis courts and the dorms is noteworthy because it is an old growth forest. This means it has never been harvested or cleared before, as evident from the massive trees. Old growth forests are especially unusual in New York because most of the forests were cleared at some point in time for farming.
A visit to this section of the woods in the spring will take you on a beautiful wildflower walk. Yellow trout lilies, hepatica and white trilliums, species unique to old growth areas, carpet the ground. These blooms are called “spring ephemerals” because they last for just a few weeks before the tree leaves are out, when the sunlight can penetrate to the understory of the forest. If you choose to check out the flowers, avoid stepping on them; it’s difficult for plants to survive when the soil becomes compacted in heavily trafficked areas.
In addition to the natural wetlands around campus, several man-made wetlands have been constructed over the years. In both 2002 and 2007, mitigation wetlands were created as compensation for natural wetlands that had been filled in as required by the EPA’s Clean Water Act.
“Basically, RIT kind of got its hand slapped because they filled in a bunch of wetlands when they were making a parking lot,” Tyler says about the creation of wetlands in 2002. Conservation easements between the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and RIT protect these mitigation wetlands (also called conservation wetlands) from any future development.
Invasion of the Emerald Ash Borers
Since coming into the U.S. on cargo ships from Asia around the 1990s, emerald ash borers (EAB) have been nothing more than a nuisance. The bugs are highly destructive to ash tree populations. Larvae laid under the bark create mazes as they feed on the tree during their development, which kills the tree. It is impossible to know if a tree has been infested until the ash borers emerge, leaving behind dime-sized holes. While the invasion in New York has not been as widespread as other areas of the U.S., the 2010 infestation on Scottsville Road made it evident that the bugs would eventually enter the campus.
Hane explains that several important questions were brought up when the initial infestation occurred: “The EAB is coming, it’s actually already here now — what will happen to the campus as a whole? We have a lot of forested areas, how much of the forested area is ash ...?”
Since then, RIT FMS has tried several different methods for controlling the infestation, which includes spraying and injecting trees. However, this can only save individual trees, as it is costly and time-consuming. This makes it unrealistic to attempt to save the thousands of trees in a forest. Many nearby communities including Canandaigua, Hane’s hometown, have chosen to preemptively remove their ash trees.
It is possible that the ash borer infestation will impact RIT’s promise to become carbon neutral by 2030.
It is possible that the ash borer infestation will impact RIT's promise to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Because carbon is stored in the soil and in trees, the ash trees that die will no longer be storing carbon. 30 percent of the trees on campus are ash, so researchers are examining what will happen when the trees die and where the carbon goes to determine how our carbon budget will be affected.
Unique Environment = Unique Research
The combination of RIT’s large campus and its location within a unique environment has enabled several fascinating research projects to occur. In the past, Hane has led students through a series of labs looking at the terrestrial isopod population on campus. Also called "rolly pollies" or "pillbugs," Hane explains, “[They] can be really important indicators of heavy metals in the soil, or contamination ... [they are] good indicators of ecosystem health.”
Hane and her students completed several surveys on campus with the bugs, collecting them from various locations. One collection site was at a location that had been an orchard during the campus’ farm days; other sites were primary and secondary growth forests. After data collection and analysis, Hane and her students found that the six species of isopods they found each occupied different areas of the campus due to their “different sensitivities to having the soil disturbed.”
RIT’s land has also become important to the newly established Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) research program.
“That’s the politically correct or proper name for 'drones,' because 'drones' has this military connotation,” Professor Jan van Aardt from the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Sciences explains. There is a large netted enclosure down Miller Road, which runs between Bailey Road and Andrew Memorial Drive, for “sense and avoid” research with smaller drones. Associate Professor Agamemnon Crassidis of KGCOE is using the enclosure to examine how the systems fly and sense each other and other obstructions and then avoid them. Because of the acreage being used for the new UAS facilities, as well as the 2015 solar panel installation, Tyler noted that RIT has decreased the land it leases out to be farmed.
Explore Your Campus
When Tyler acted as the chair of the Campus Environment Committee, she sent out a survey to find out who was using the campus and what they were using it for. They learned that aside from the professors, researchers and students who use RIT’s land for classes, most people didn’t know much about the campus or the land it sits on. Despite the incredible space and resources available, the campus is not very well used with many people unaware of the trails in the woods or Red Creek flowing through campus.
So make sure to get outside and see beyond the brick city.
So make sure to get outside and see beyond the brick city. Go look for tadpoles in the creek and get lost on the trails behind Grace Watson Hall. Adventure down Miller Road to check out the drone research enclosure and try to imagine what else a netted cage that large could be used for. Find the old farm equipment buried by the main entrance to campus. Just make sure you don't step on the wildflowers.
Just make sure you don’t step on the wildflowers.