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University takes novel approach to campus landscape management and learning

By 2025, Ohio State aims to increase the amount and performance of its available greenspace while creating new living lab student learning and research opportunities.

two researchers walk along a footbridge to test water qualityThe University Panel on Ecosystem Services, which included faculty, staff and students, made a series of recommendations that are being implemented across the Columbus campus.

“The living lab projects ground what we do, provide students with amazing research opportunities and enhance our classroom learning with hands-on efforts,” said Maria Conroy, associate professor of city and regional planning with the Knowlton School of Architecture. Conroy chaired the University Panel on Ecosystem Services.

In 2015, the university established sustainability goals to demonstrate leadership and develop durable solutions to pressing social challenges. As a result of the panel’s work, one of those goals included increasing the university’s “ecosystem services” — benefits that society receives from the natural environment — by 60% by 2025.

“We believe that our comprehensive approach to increasing the environmental and social benefits of the university’s landscapes, while integrating the university’s academic mission into those landscapes, is unique in higher education,” said university landscape architect and panel member Steve Volkmann ('79 landscape architecture).

The panel’s recommendations outlined how the university could accomplish that goal. Through that work, the university has developed a unique “Ecosystem Service Index,” or ESI, which defines 15 different metrics across four broader categories for campus improvement:

  • Protection and Conservation of Core Ecosystems
  • Stormwater Management and Water Quality
  • Vegetation, Soil and Biodiversity
  • Quality of Life

Measuring from a 2015 baseline, each of the 15 metrics has a defined improvement goal and a related achievement rating. Rolled up together, the separate achievement ratings provide the university with an overall ESI score to measure overall performance progress.  

So, as the university improves stream water quality, expands the campus tree canopy, restores wetlands or reduces stormwater runoff, among other actions, the overall ESI score improves.

Examples of aspirations and progress toward the university’s ecosystem services 2025 goals:

  • 75 acres of wetlands or urban meadow areas (there are now almost 52 acres);
  • 90% of campus floodplains maintained or restored as non-developed land (now 47.58%);
  • 68.95 acres of green infrastructure (currently 39.4 acres); and
  • 25% of the campus covered by tree canopy (now 14.7%).

Integrating the Academic Mission

The panel report outlined how the university could further incorporate ecosystem protections into its operations. Perhaps more importantly, the panel recognized the opportunity to further advance Ohio State’s academic mission by leveraging its managed landscapes and natural environment.

Specifically, the panel called for the formal establishment of a university living lab program. As a result, one of the key Quality of Life metrics within the ESI is to support student and faculty research through living labs, with a goal of enabling 100 learning projects on campus lands.

In living lab projects, students and faculty conduct research and experiments around campus, expand knowledge and provide insights useful for the university to advance sustainable practices, operations and technologies. To advance the university’s ecosystem services goal, some living labs will focus on using the campus’ natural environment for solving real-world problems and teaching ethical landscape management approaches.

“We’re not starting fresh with this. We have had actions being done on campus that are little pockets, and those can all be coordinated and grown,” said Conroy. Already there are more than 25 living lab projects on campus, and this summer, the university’s Sustainability Institute hired Matthew Griffin as a program director for sustainability education and learning to facilitate these student experiential learning opportunities by collaborating with faculty and staff.

Some of the ESI metrics themselves represent living lab opportunities. For example, another Quality of Life metric is to reduce the university’s urban heat island effect. Urban areas trap heat and energy, escalating temperatures and the length of time that residents are exposed to increased heat. In fact, Columbus experiences the eighth-largest difference between urban and surrounding rural area temperatures in the country, with temperature spreads up to 24 degrees in difference.

Through funding from the Sustainability Institute, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and Department of Geography are launching a new undergraduate class project in fall 2019 to study and map the university’s urban heat island. This knowledge will not only provide land management insight to the university but will also add to the academic body of knowledge on how to accurately measure and monitor urban heat islands. It will also give Ohio State students experience using sophisticated monitoring equipment and understanding strategies to combat harmful impacts of climate change.

Finding Ecosystem Value

Some of the panel recommendations and ESI metrics will have financial benefits to the university, including reduced city service costs related to stormwater management. However, there are often incalculable benefits for this work.

“The prevailing winds tend to bring ecosystem services to an economic cost or benefit,” said Conroy. “That is a simplification that is easy for folks to grasp. But that negates the things that are considered priceless. Think about the Oval: How do you put an economic value on the Oval?”

In this manner, the university is aiming to establish and restore additional cultural focal points across campus, much like the renewed Mirror Lake, that provide environmental and social attributes.

Providing Leadership

“The Midwest is often looked at as following the coasts when it comes to sustainability,” Conroy said about Ohio State’s new approach to its ecosystems. “I think we can really be a showcase to other institutions looking to make progress in the sustainability realm and to students; I think we will entice others to come here.”

from the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State