Middlebury College’s main academic campus in Middlebury, Vermont encompasses 350 acres (including athletic fields). Of those, 97 are mowed once a week for 24 weeks out of the year, resulting in $10,696 spent on diesel fuel annually.
In collaboration with the Landscape department, two Sustainability Solutions Lab interns drafted a proposal that calls for the implementation of reduced mowing zones and the restoration of ecological habitats on the main campus through the planting of native species and Clayplain forest plantings over the course of a two year pilot plan.
Mowed lawns are equivalent to ecological wastelands, providing little to no habitat or being outright hostile environments for birds, small mammals, insects, and pollinators. A 2020 article from Princeton explains exactly how lawns and lawn maintenance are rapid contributors to climate change with gasoline powered lawn maintenance equipment across the U.S. demanding 800 million gallons of gasoline annually. Middlebury College prides itself on being a guiding force in higher education towards sustainability and accountability. To mow less and to be intentionally kinder to the landscape that the college resides within through more intentional management of beautiful and natural habitats would not only serve this campus and education within it, but would also create a regenerative ecological model for the greater Middlebury and Vermont communities, as well as higher education as a whole.
In our 5 year plan, we propose 27 acres return to habitat spaces, rewilding about 25% of the acres cared for. All mowed areas, shown in gray, are considered High Maintenance Lawn and cut every other week. Areas shown in orange are the current no-mow zones as of August 2022, designated as Rough Lawn. Guidelines on mowing around buildings and walkways will also continue to keep mice and ticks at bay.
The information seen in these ArcGIS Field Maps are also listed in this spreadsheet, Campus Lawns. We plan to test all 7 ground cover types (Rough Lawn, High Maintenance Lawn, Clover Lawn, Greensward, Clayplain Forest Plantings, Perennial Groundcovers, and Pollinator Habitats) at a few different locations over the first two years. From there, the College can scale up to include our other proposed locations for changing High Maintenance Lawn to other ground cover types all listed here.
From an Energy2028 perspective, this project is helping Middlebury lead in the climate crisis. Energy2028’s second goal, Campus Energy Conservation “Intends to reduce energy consumption on its core campus by 25 percent by 2028” If this plan is adopted beginning in 2023 and correctly implemented, it will reduce the amount of acres mowed by 25% by 2028, meeting the College’s goals. This will decrease fuel use for lawn management by 25% or more. By cutting mowing hours by rewilding many campus spaces, less carbon will be output into the atmosphere from lawn mowers, and less energy will be required to care for our grounds through mowing.
Energy 2028’s fourth goal, Commitment to Educational Opportunities connects strongly to the goals of our project. Courses and their respective labs (as of Fall 2022 offerings) such as Ecology & Evolution, Natural Science & the Environment, Entomology, Plant Community Ecology, Conservation Biology, and many more, may use these areas to learn more about native plants and soils, regeneration, habitat spaces, and much more. As the Knoll works on becoming a more accessible place, these rewilded spaces on the main part of campus can serve as an accessible option for lab classes to get outside. Outside of the classroom, these areas restored to their natural habitats will allow for students to interact with nature right outside their dorms. In addition, “…exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.” This project comes with benefits that have the opportunity to significantly improve physical and mental health on Middlebury’s campus.
For immediate action, a trial zone will be implemented on portions of the underutilized quad surrounding Davis Family Library, in which each cover type will be implemented and tested for a season before beginning on other parts of campus. Insect and Avian studies on current populations are also already underway through the Sustainability Solutions Lab as well, in efforts to understand population statistics as they currently stand and where we can grow from here!