Jan 27, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Students prod colleges to let campus greens grow wild

Illustration of a college pennant with a plant logo and the words "Go Green!".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new environmental movement has college students beseeching school officials to switch to organic lawn care — or let well-manicured campus quads grow wild.

Why it matters: Concerns about pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides like Roundup have been upending landscaping, and the students' efforts could boost the move toward natural lawn care.

  • An additional concern: drought, which has people ripping up their lawns in favor of succulents, wildflowers, and native flora.

Driving the news: A young, small organization called Re:wild Your Campus is leading the charge.

  • It's offering fellowships and encouraging college students to push administrators and groundskeepers to switch to vinegar-based lawn care products, embrace composting, and more.
  • Its first victory came in 2018, when students convinced the University of California, Berkeley, to switch to organic land management. (It's now 95% organic.)
  • A recent win at Grinnell College in Iowa involved restoring native prairie grasses on a 5,000-square-foot campus plot.

Where it stands: Re:wild Your Campus has endowed 20 fellows on 11 campuses in 10 states this year, including at Princeton University, Drexel University, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

  • Its first cohort of fellowships came from six schools, including Grinnell College, Emory University, and Brandeis University.
  • The group just started offering a green grounds certification to qualifying campuses and released an impact report on its efforts.

What they're saying: "Students are enthusiastic about this — they're excited about working on a tangible issue that connects to climate change and biodiversity loss," Sheina Crystal, the group's director of communications and campaigns, tells Axios.

  • The goal is to get schools to "transition to organic land care with the integration of more rewilded spaces on campus."
  • Organic land care "fosters biodiversity; protects the health of students, groundskeepers, and campus communities; supports pollinators; and has the potential to mitigate climate change," the group wrote in its progress report.

The other side: School officials are "usually pretty resistant at first" and "have a lot of misconceptions" about the proposed changes, Crystal tells Axios.

  • They perceive alternatives to conventional lawn care as ineffective, expensive, and ugly — potentially ruining the pretty campuses that attract students and alumni dollars.
  • Groundskeepers, too, are skeptical of the students' suggestions and efforts to educate them — highlighting a town/gown divide between the typically young, female undergrads and the seasoned, often male grounds teams.
  • Re:wild has already been skewered by a pro-industry group, which flamed the students' claims of "climate anxiety" and called the chemicals they're attacking "low risk."

The backstory: The two founders of Re:wild Your Campus, Mackenzie Feldman and Bridget Gustafson, were beach volleyball players at UC Berkeley who were told by their coach not to chase the ball off-court because the grounds crew had just sprayed the area with toxic chemicals.

  • That galvanized them to get the relevant chemical, glyphosate, banned from campus.
  • In 2019, the year after they graduated, they campaigned to ban glyphosate on all 10 University of California campuses.
  • That successful effort led to the creation of the Systemwide Pesticide Oversight Committee, housed within the president's office at the University of California, which is managing the groundskeeping policies.

The big picture: There's a battle over lawns playing out nationally, as homeowners and communities try to balance aesthetics with health and environmental concerns.

  • A first-of-its-kind Nevada law requires that certain patches of grass be replaced with desert-friendly alternatives.
  • Programs like "No Mow May" encourage people to let their lawns go natural for a month to build habitats for pollinators.
  • On the other side, a homeowners association in Maryland demanded that one family "rip out their native plant beds and replace them with grass," as the New York Times reported.

Flashback: Harvard College was in the vanguard when it pivoted to organic lawn care in 2008.

  • The effects were noticeable just a year later: "The organically grown grass on campus is now green from the microbes that feed the soil, eliminating the use of synthetic nitrogen, the base of most commercial fertilizers," the Times reported.

The bottom line: Movements that start on campus often radiate more broadly into society.

  • "We're trying to make this an issue that's really at the forefront of people's consciousness when considering a college," Crystal said.
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