College towns have a lot to offer: arts, entertainment and — more often these days — cutting-edge landscape practices. The University of Texas at Austin is among a growing list of universities rethinking landscape planning and management to address realities such as water scarcity and wildlife habitat decline. Working with landscape architecture firm Sasaki Associates Inc., ecologists and environmental designers from the Wildflower Center’s Ecosystem Design Group are helping the university create a landscape master plan for its new medical district that will open in 2016 as well as for the existing campus.
Center ecologists have made a name for themselves by helping put ecological function on par with design aesthetic at high-profile sites such as San Antonio’s Mission Reach and the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas. At the university, they are facing new challenges — and opportunities — given the project’s urban setting and the expectations that come with a college campus.
University landscapes – that is – are expected to meet the needs of student life and typically there is a certain design aesthetic in mind, says environmental designer Michelle Bright. "We wanted to show that it’s possible to meet those objectives as well as help the site function better from an ecological standpoint."
The team started with an ecological site assessment. A typical master plan assessment, Bright explained, records a park bench here, a garbage can over there. Center ecologists looked at the campus through a new lens, making note of invasive species, existing native plants such as Texas’ legendary live oak trees as well as non-natives such as thirsty St. Augustine turfgrass. They took soil samples that helped determine the soil health on the site and assessed drainage conditions – critical because of the campus’ location near the city’s Waller Creek.
"This process challenged us as ecologists because usually we are evaluating sites that are not ecologically pristine — but closer to that state than could ever be true of an urban college campus," says Bright. "What’s exciting is that there are a lot of opportunities available to improve landscape health on campus with measures that make a difference to the surrounding environment."
For example, Bright and the team will recommend managing stormwater that falls onsite in such a way that it does not pollute nearby Waller Creek. They will also suggest appropriate native plants that are more resilient than existing plants.
“Being able to maintain a landscape when water restrictions are in place is a real concern — and challenge — for a large, urban campus. Asking planners to consider what plants will hold up – be resilient – in the face of water scarcity is something that is both practical and good for ecological function," says Bright. Center ecologists are recommending that HABITURF® — a lawn mix of drought-tolerant, regionally appropriate turfgrass species developed from the Center’s award-winning research — replace St. Augustine as lawn where possible. They also suggest adding some native prairie plants such as buffalograss and sideoats grama — for ecological health and aesthetics in parkland areas.
Doing so might help the campus resemble its historic state, according to Bright. Photographs from the 1900’s prove students of that day saw a whole lot more of native Texas on campus than do students today. "I found great photos of campus from the early 1900’s at the Briscoe Center for American History that show how wildflowers once bloomed alongside native grasses in place of the current acres of non-native lawn."
Another measure Bright and others from the Center’s team are proud of is how they’ll establish a survey for use by the landscape maintenance staff at UT. The survey will ask staff to rank plants by how much maintenance and water they have found they need. The hope is to answer which native and appropriate non-native species take less irrigation. “When water restrictions demand that potable water be cut off for plantings, staff will know how to respond,” says Bright.
She explains the project as a way to get intimate with the ecological setting in the urban environment. Bright says, "We are not attempting to restore the landscape here to its historical precedent, but generate ecological function and build ecological resilience into the university grounds for the benefit of the campus community."
By Christina Kosta Procopiou
Photographs by Michelle Bright