It goes without saying that the Lawn at the University of Virginia is an irreplaceable treasure. It holds a special place in the hearts of all UVA students, alumni, and families– from signing the honor code to the school snow ball fights to spring study sessions to graduation, we will all cherish the Lawn because it holds many of our greatest memories. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson who wanted to bring English landscaping to the University. His original intention (and UVA’s layout until the construction of Old Cabell Hall in 1898) was to allow the Lawn to open up across from the Rotunda into a botanical garden for the student citizen-farmers (Bormann et al.). And here, is where I come in.
I want to make it very clear that I have nothing against the Lawn. It is an icon and a part of our history. However, moving forwards, we cannot seem to get away from grass and building more “lawns.” We have miniature lawns everywhere across campus—no matter where you go, you cannot seem to get away from grass at the University of Virginia. It makes sense, as grass is technically the largest crop in the United States (Bormann et al.). It is also attractive and gives people the comfort of civilization combined with the benefits of being surrounded by plants. But unfortunately, I rarely see people enjoying these well-kept grassy areas. While the Lawn is definitely used—generally for streaking or, in nice weather, studying— I would say it isn’t used enough. The other areas are hardly ever touched at all. I always feel strange walking across the grass because I have almost never seen anyone do it unless there was some sort of social gathering. Simply put, the University just isn’t using these grassy areas and, as far as sustainability goes, this isn’t a good way for the University to use its resources.
Grass takes a significant amount of effort and resource in order to maintain: seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, mowing (and gasoline), copious amounts of water, and, especially, money. Fertilizer, pesticides and mowing are particularly concerning to many environmentally conscious citizens, but what many don’t realize is that American lawns are especially detrimental to biodiversity (Bormann et al.). It’s as if we paved over all other species in an area and laid down just one (or two, if we count some scattered trees). Here we are spending money and washing chemicals into our water systems only to have some plainly beautiful patches of grass. People often joke that we should “pave the Lawn in order to provide more parking,” but in many ways, we have decided to pave many of our other areas with grass. Instead, what I suggest is that the University of Virginia takes the “Freedom Lawn Initiative.” The Freedom Lawn is a relaxed lawn that permits the coexistence of native species with little interference by humans (Bormann et al.). Universities across the country are taking this initiative including, but not limited to: Penn State, Oberlin, the University of Arizona, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Vermont, and Brown University (Bormann et al.). The Connecticut College presents the “Talloires Declaration” as their pledge to “teach environmental stewardship, not just in the classroom, but in all campus operations as well. By striving to make operations more efficient and environmentally sound, Connecticut College can serve as an environmental model while also saving money and resources” (Bormann et al.). Our goal at UVA would be to create a more sustainable school while still fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s dream of student gardens. Safety and health would be of the utmost importance, but the University has many talented students and faculty who would come up with an exceptional plan. UVA would be making a huge environmental stand for protecting habitats, encouraging biodiversity, reducing waste, minimizing pollution, and promoting student conservation. Not to mention, we would be creating a more economically sound plan for the future of UVA’s grounds so that we could focus our assets on providing more aid to students and additional educational material.
I want the University to become a place of interaction and understanding in our intimate environment. Building gardens designed for active participation would be a beautiful way to bring sustainability to UVA. Ecologically, we will always be a part of the environment we build around ourselves and I hope that someday we can all come back to visit the University of Virginia and walk through gardens gently tended by future students.
I used information from Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T. Ceballe (2001). It’s really worth reading if you’re interested in more sustainable lawns.
The first picture was taken from UVA’s Facebook page and the second is from UVA’s home page. Pictures 3 through 5 were taken from Connecticut College (.edu).