No mow: Hampshire College turns lawns into meadows to protect species, fight climate change

Last modified: Monday, July 15, 2013

Drivers traveling past Hampshire College on Route 116 used to see an expanse of well-groomed lawn at the edge of campus.

They now see what appear to be unkempt, overgrown fields but are actually managed meadowlands that provide natural habitat for local wildlife species.

Hampshire College now has two parcels of meadowlands on its Amherst campus. One is six acres and the other is nine — just big enough to accommodate a small population of grassland birds, said Beth Hooker, sustainability initiative director at Hampshire.

Planning for the project to turn lawns into meadowlands began during the fall session of “Sustainable Hampshire,” a course taught by Steven Roof, an associate professor of earth and environmental science. The project wrapped up this spring with help from Roof, his students, Hooker, farm manager Leslie Cox and Larry Archey, the college’s facilities and grounds director.

“We have a real commitment to sustainability at Hampshire,” Hooker said.

The meadowlands serve as breeding grounds for many species of birds, like the vester sparrow, which is listed as threatened in Massachusetts, Hooker said. Native plants, some of which are also on the state threatened or endangered lists, will be able to thrive in the new habitat as well.

Farm connection

Besides acting as a haven for birds, plants and other wildlife, the meadowlands will be hayed once or twice a year to serve Hampshire’s farms, Hooker said. The fields will only be hayed after July 5, once nesting season is over and young birds are no longer in harm’s way, she said.

One of the major benefits of the meadowlands, and a topic of great interest among faculty and students, is their potential to reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Emily Waters, a former ecology major who graduated from Hampshire in May, completed an independent study on carbon sequestration in the soil under the meadowlands and compared her findings to soil under a manicured lawn. Because the meadowlands aren’t managed as heavily, they are able to develop a higher level of biodiversity and recycle nutrients from dead plants and twigs back into the soil, allowing for the soil to hold onto more carbon than any lawn could, she said.

“One of the big things associated with lawns is a huge amount of fertilizer and pesticides used to keep them looking really manicured,” Waters said. “They’re not biodiverse, the soils and plants aren’t able to really develop because they’re cut so frequently, they’re just not good habitats.”

The meadowlands don’t only absorb carbon. They also allow the college to cut back on emissions by reducing the time and resources needed to keep up a lawn, Hooker said.

According to a statement from the college, the meadowlands are estimated to reduce carbon dioxide levels by up to 12,000 pounds per year, cut back on mowing time by 448 hours per year and save the college about $2,300 per year in diesel fuel costs.

Time and money saved will allow the grounds staff to dedicate more resources to other maintenance projects around campus, Archey said.

Living laboratory

The meadowlands will also act as a laboratory for students to learn about that type of ecosystem and help encourage students interested in the environment to come to Hampshire, Archey said.

“Hampshire attracts people first and foremost for its academics,” he said. “Someone who might be an environmentalist or want to do natural sciences or farming, to actually see this reinforces that impression.”

The students and faculty at the forefront of the meadowlands project made sure that it would not interfere with campus life, Archey said. By placing the meadows on the outskirts of campus, they were sure to maintain plenty of lawn space for students to hang out on, he said.

“They really looked at the opportunities and possibilities and tried to make certain they weren’t taking away any highly used places on campus,” he said.

Waters said the only complaint about the meadowlands she heard from students was a concern about ticks. But the benefits outweigh the cost and most students seemed to agree, she said.

“(The campus) will be more beautiful and ecologically interesting,” Waters said. “We’re also expanding the hay fields to support Hampshire’s farm.”

Broader goals

The carbon reduction aspect of the meadowlands is in line with Hampshire’s broader sustainability goal to be a carbon-neutral campus by 2030, Hooker said. Hampshire is one of the signers of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and has other sustainability initiatives in place to help it reach that goal.

For example, the college recently installed a solar canopy in the arts village on campus and replaced the lighting in many buildings and residence halls with light-emitting diodes, Hooker said.

In the fall, a group of students started the Sustainability Revolving Fund (SURF), to provide loans for campus projects that will improve sustainability and save the college money in the long run, Hooker said. SURF has so far given out three loans for various projects, like LED installations in the dance studio, that will be paid back over five to seven years.

As an institution of higher learning, Hooker said, it is Hampshire’s responsibility to lead on important issues like sustainability and prepare students to be sustainable in their own lives and future careers.

“With climate change being a real problem, students and our community need to be involved with learning and doing what we can do,” she said. “We need to be leaders not just for the community, but for the nation and the world.”


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