How I Do It: Partnering with a University on Sustainability   - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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How I Do It: Partnering with a University on Sustainability  

Photo: Aamna Anwer, Sustainability Coordinator - Office of Sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis

Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions, based in Caseyville, Illinois, has been working with Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, for a number of years and the college has been focused on sustainability for some time. Washington University established the Office of Sustainability in 2011.

“WashU understands that sustainable landscape practices are more than the right thing to do,” says Cassandra P. Hage, assistant director of the Office of Sustainability at Washington University. “A comprehensive commitment to sustainable landscaping results in saving potable water, meeting Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) requirements to limit additional stormwater runoff as the campus continues to develop and add more impervious service, and creates beautiful spaces for the campus community to learn, relax in, and enjoy.”

One of Focal Pointe’s mottos is “a passion to reflect the ideals of those we serve.” This calls for the company to learn the goals and values of their partners.

Cody Azotea, an account manager with Focal Pointe Outdoor Solutions, started working with the university in 2017. He says they had quite the learning curve when they started. The Office of Sustainability already had a strategic plan that outlined the university’s sustainable landscape goals.

Cody Azotea

This includes increasing biodiversity and tree canopy coverage with a goal to increase overall canopy up to 35 percent by 2035.

“Since we started, Focal Pointe has installed 149,155 plants (tree, shrubs, and perennials) on campus of which 81 percent are native species, including cultivars,” Azotea says. “Between Danforth Campus and School of Medicine Campus partners, we have installed over 2,000 trees and have introduced over 100 new tree species. Danforth could reach 6,000 trees on campus later this year and the School of Medicine is nearing 2,500 trees.”

Washington University also wanted to adapt and create “performative landscapes” that offered benefits such as habitat creation, management and filtration of stormwater, reduced urban heat island effect, sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions, and more. Performative landscapes are now the majority of landscapes on campus, as they’ve increased 88 percent over the past 10 years.

“Our interactions with the Office of Sustainability typically involve an annual progress check, year-end report on data and special projects throughout the year. Some examples of data we shared include plant material installed (native/non-native), invasive species removed, IPM/product use, irrigation/water conservation, waste, etc.,” Azotea says.

Azotea says working in a college setting has helped facilitate conversations and push best practices. He says having input from the campus community helps them learn new plant species, what they are teaching in classes and other related items. When looking to enhance an area, they take all of this into account and consider what new species they could introduce for more biodiversity.

“A portion of the planting may have some repetition for balance and harmony, however, every new project has at least a handful of new species,” Azotea says.  “A common small tree may be a Serviceberry, but we may use Carolina Buckthorn, American Hazelnut or Chickasaw Plum. A common perennial may be Purple Coneflower, but we may use Glade Coneflower, Rattlesnake Master, or Hairy Wood Mint.”

Recent Projects

One of the projects that Focal Pointe has been involved in included the removal of an allee of invasive Bradford pear trees. Azotea instead designed a corridor of magnolia hybrids along with native sedges and grape hyacinths for spring color.

“The Danforth Campus, which has long been known for its beautiful park-like landscapes and iconic tree allees, is integrating native and adaptive plantings as a standard practice when new landscapes are designed and others are updated,” Hage says.

Hage says in general students seem more open to biodynamic landscapes while older generations have more of a learning curve accepting native landscapes, but as the native landscapes mature, more and more people are celebrating the changes.

“Student response has been really positive,” Hage says. “The Office of Sustainability gets regular requests to lead tours of campus landscapes – the students especially like learning which plants are edible. Several courses use the Level 2 Campus Arboretum as a tool for tree identification as well as other applications.”

Plans for the Future

As for the next phase of strategic planning, Azotea anticipates benchmark studies to gather data on the biodiversity of the campus and then set goals to increase biodiversity over time. He says they will continue to enhance/protect campus habitats, create/connect wildlife corridors and more.  

“One specific goal we have been working toward is collecting all trees native to Missouri on campus,” Azotea says. “We are currently at 102 species and have around 50 species left to accession for the WashU arboretum.”

Focal Pointe has also been buying and testing electric equipment for several years and is hoping to make steps forward in this area to reduce emissions in the future.

“There will always be some areas for improvement – that’s just the type of mentality you must have in sustainability,” Azotea says. “We have a few things we have been looking at and staying flexible to other challenges that may present themselves. Keeping in communication and collaboration with our partners will be key.”

Challenges to Expect

Azotea acknowledges that any landscape has its fair share of challenges and change isn’t easy if you don’t have the experience when trying to make the landscape more sustainable. He encourages others to find a local support staff to make big decisions. Another challenge has been supply and demand issues.

“Finding unique and diverse plant material has been difficult,” Azotea says. “Growers grow what sells, and if people don’t recognize it, it’s hard to sell. It is important that you are also sourcing these unique species from reputable growers that are sourcing material in sustainable ways. Organic-based fertilizer products have been available for some time, but the recent increase in demand has made availability challenging. Have a plan and be ready to discuss suitable substitutions if they arise.” 

Sustainability has been a buzzword in recent years, but it comes down to making a positive impact on the landscape so future generations can enjoy the same space.

“There is still so much we don’t understand,” Azotea says. “Because of this, it is important to stay engaged, continue to learn, and help create a better future.” 

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.