Municipal and campus sustainability efforts are not only good practice, they can also be critical to the fiscal health of cities and universities, even impacting student enrollment. As such, cities and universities nationwide are implementing mandatory sustainability plans, and many contain recommendations from “sustainability councils” with dedicated experts dictating how work must be done on their grounds. For a great number of them, this includes all landscaping practices.
Joseph Jackson currently works as a consultant for EcoGrounds Management in Durham, North Carolina, and was formerly the director of grounds and sanitation services for Duke University.
According to Jackson, a major trend for universities is to accurately assess their carbon footprint and take the necessary steps to reduce, eliminate or mitigate the impact. Many universities, he explained, have written sustainable and environmentally conscious practices into their mission statements.
“Recent studies have revealed that when many students and their parents are looking and making their decision on which school they would like to attend, they are attracted to those schools that are showing a commitment to sustainable practices both academically and operationally,” Jackson said. “Universities are communities that exist in the boundaries of a larger community, be it a city or a town and within a state. They are vested in doing those things that prove an acceptance and appreciation of their stewardship role with the environment.”
Some of the more popular campus sustainability practices today include establishing an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, landscaping with more native and site adaptive plant material, tree inventory/management plans, centralized irrigation systems, the use of bioswales and rain gardens, and the use of electric or alternative-fueled vehicles and equipment. “Electric equipment is playing an increasingly bigger role,” Jackson said.
More than 900 academic institutions are part of a sustainability ratings program managed by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). The AASHE STARS program is a globally renowned framework in the world for tracking and reporting information related to a college or university’s sustainability efforts and programs. Participants report achievements in five overall areas: academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration and innovation and leadership.
Julian Dautremont, director of programs for the AASHE, said that the STARS rating system gives credit to institutions that have personnel dedicated to campus sustainability, such as volunteers on a councilor paid.
“We are seeing more universities establishing dedicated staff positions for sustainability,” Dautremont said. “In terms of being able to create real change, we find it’s challenging when schools don’t have a dedicated person for keeping these efforts moving because it’s very hard to have this run by volunteers. However, having a council is a good start and those bodies can do quite a lot.”
According to Dautremont, one of the primary roles of the association is to help members learn from each other. Smaller institutions are often isolated, and they may have only one person dedicated to sustainability efforts. In addition to the STARS program, the AASHE presents webinars and workshops for members, offers an online resource center and produces a weekly newsletter highlighting campus efforts.
At the University of Denver (DU), a community of faculty, staff and student liaisons form the DU Sustainability Council. Established in 2009, the council works in committees to develop projects and policies, support campus wide goals and assist on reporting sustainability efforts and metrics.
“Many universities have declared carbon neutrality goals through the Second Nature American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment,” explained Chad King, Ph.D., executive director of sustainability at the University of Denver. “This commitment requires the formation of a sustainability council to oversee those goals.”
As the face of the university’s sustainability efforts, King said he spends a lot of time communicating with stakeholders on and off campus about the school’s strategies and, at times, serving as a project manager when projects bridge departments.
“Sustainability councils provide a way of bridging the many sometimes disparate-but-related efforts on campuses,” King said. “This provides a time and space for aligning initiatives toward the greater good and the larger goals. The council also allows faculty and students to work side-by-side with custodial, facilities and food service employees who implement many of the projects that emerge, which builds community around this work.”
Regarding DU’s campus sustainability efforts, King said that they have been slowly transitioning their transportation fleet to include more low speed electric vehicles (GEMS) instead of full-size trucks. They also continue to seek funding in the budgeting process for broader electric vehicle fleet replacements.
In addition, King said that the grounds committee on the sustainability council recommended several projects and practices.
“Much of this work has focused on water use, given our climate; fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use, as the fertilizer contributes to carbon emissions; and maintenance operations. This included changes to our lawn maintenance contract to require electric mowers and other equipment, development of a community garden, the placement and management of beehives in the garden, plans for pollinator and xeriscape plantings, and the purchase of a weed steamer to reduce pesticide use.”
The University of Texas at Austin (UT) created a President’s Sustainability Steering Committee in 2007 and holds a Gold STARS rating. The group is led by two deans and includes students, staff and faculty. The Office of Sustainability facilitates the meetings and reports back on both campus activities and future directions for the committee to consider.
In 2016 the committee created its first campus sustainability plan and is currently updating their plan with new goals and strategies.
“Our Landscape Services department has an amazing culture of stewardship,” said Jim Walker, director of sustainability. “We currently have over 200 electric carts that have replaced gas vehicles over the last 10 plus years. We are working on other incentives to support more electric vehicles on campus.”
According to Jim Carse, manager of UT landscaping, the university has an extensive fleet of battery powered equipment and carts that includes an e-bike for maintenance in busy areas. Additionally, he said that the university maintains a primary focus on tree health and conservation, with mitigation standards for trees removed for construction.
In 2018, the City of Evanston, Illinois, enacted a Climate Action and Resilience Plan based on the efforts of a resident-led council commissioned by then mayor, Steve Hagerty.
In addition to long-term goals for carbon neutrality and renewable electricity, there were immediate directives for landscaping companies working with the city. As of 2018, landscape contractors wanting to operate in the City of Evanston are required to register their companies with the city and abide by sustainability protocols.
"Evanston's Climate Action and Resilience Plan establishes ambitious climate-related goals,” Hagerty said. “Hiring green contractors who implement sustainable and responsible landscape practices directly supports these goals while enhancing green spaces for people and pollinators."
In June 2021, the City of Naperville, Illinois, hired Ben Mjolsness as its first sustainability coordinator. Mjolsness partners with all departments on issues related to sustainability and environmental health. To date, he has assembled a cross-departmental sustainability team (including representatives from the Department of Public Works) to share ideas and discuss strategies and best practices.
“The City of Naperville is continually working to reduce its impact on the environment while providing a healthy community for people to live, work and play,” Mjolsness said.
“For example, the city fleet includes electric vehicles, hybrid electric police cruisers, alternative fuel trucks and other lower-emitting equipment to provide for cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”
The city of Austin, Texas, has operated its Grow Green program since 2001. Grow Green is a gardening education program that promotes sustainable landscaping practices.
One of the key components of the Grow Green program is Landscape Professional Training, designed to provide information to enhance sustainable landscape services for existing contractors. Once the training is complete, contractors’ names are published on the city’s website. While not an official certification, the trainings — which are in the process of being revamped in the wake of COVID-19 — help professional landscapers learn about the latest sustainable practices.
The Grow Green program also outlines specific equipment preferences, such as propane, biodiesel or natural gas-powered mowers, edging or trimming devices, electric mowers and hand tools where appropriate.
To ensure contracted landscapers maintain sustainable practices, the city can inspect a contractor’s equipment at any time.
To better meet the needs of commercial landscapers working within green parameters set by cities and universities nationwide, Gravely has launched its first, electric zero-turn mower: the Gravely Pro-Turn EV. A recently published study, U.S Electric Lawn Mower Market - Comprehensive Study and Strategic Analysis 2020-2025, projected that the U.S. electric lawn mowers market revenue is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 9% from 2019-2025.
The study, which is available on ResearchandMarkets.com, also cites various factors that are likely to contribute to the growth of the U.S. electric lawn mowers market during the forecast period. Those factors include an increased demand for golf courses, the influence of the internet on lawn mower purchasing, growth in manufacturer-led programs and initiatives, and the rise of sustainability efforts in cities.