Making a Prettier Campus

It’s no secret that Colgate has one of the most beautiful college campuses in America. In fact, Best College Reviews ranks it #11 in the country, and I’d argue that it could be even higher. Why is our campus so pretty, though? Is it the architecture, the sunsets or even the trees and the grass? We also can’t forget about a morning after a fresh snowfall. Aesthetic value isn’t really something that we can quantify, but the plant life of Colgate definitely contributes to it being such a pretty campus. What if we could make the campus even prettier, while at the same time becoming more environmentally friendly? How would we go about doing this? The answer is simple: Lawns. 

Traditional grass lawns are a monoculture, meaning they are all just one species of plant that is grown en masse. These monocultures are maintained through the application of herbicides and kept lush with fertilizers. They have to be trimmed constantly with gas-powered machines. Don’t get me wrong, I like sitting on the grass in the quad as much as anyone else. Do we need quite so much grass, though? While we need fields to play sports on or lawns to hold gatherings on, there are a lot of spaces where the grass is purely ornamental, and this biologically unproductive land is just a sink into which we needlessly spray synthetic inputs. These herbicides are often derived from fossil fuels. According to the eXtension Farm Energy web resource, some of the most common herbicides are atrazine and glyphosate, which use the energy equivalent of an entire barrel of oil in 47 and 30 acres, respectively. Furthermore, glyphosate, which many more of us might know under the name Roundup, is considered a “probable carcinogen” according to the World Health Organization. Once we take into account that agricultural workers in the United States are disproportionately people of color and are exposed to these same herbicides when used on crops, herbicide use suddenly becomes an issue of environmental justice. How do we grapple with this as an environmentally conscious institution? 

Even if we stopped using herbicides, would these lawns be better? Probably not, because we’d just have lawns with more weeds, and we’d still have large tracts of land that are not biologically productive. What do I mean by this? I mean that grasses don’t contribute anything to natural processes. In nature, grasses occur as food for grazing animals like cows or horses, and we don’t have any of those on campus. We do have vibrant communities of other taxa, like birds, butterflies, bees and yes, lots of deer. For example, research from Goulson et al. (2015) shows that bee populations are declining due in large part to habitat loss, pesticide usage and lack of flowers. Lawns create neither food nor habitat for the vast majority of life on Earth. Also, they don’t produce seeds or fruits that animals can eat, nor can they support insects like the monarch butterfly that relies on a single host plant: Milkweed. Milkweed is a native plant that butterflies have co-evolved with over millions of years, and this delicate relationship that we have destroyed is one example of the beautiful complexity that we lose when we spread lawns everywhere. This is the solution to our problems with lawns: Bringing back native plants. 

Native plant gardens can replace lawns, increasing biodiversity and helping threatened organisms like the monarch butterfly. A common misconception is that this would just bring in more bugs and other pests that we don’t like. Having an insect problem is actually a symptom of a system that isn’t functioning properly. Having more insects means more food for animals like birds. If our insects were getting out of control, it would mean that we don’t have good habitats for birds. A recent study published by Narango et al. (2018) found that chickadee populations were significantly harmed by non-native plants that didn’t support the insect communities that the chickadees needed for food during the summer. If we go about it correctly, these native gardens will bring us back into equilibrium. They require no water, fertilizer or pesticides, and require far less labor once planted, while also providing brilliantly colorful flowers, bees, butterflies and birds. 

There is a national movement among colleges and universities to lessen our reliance on herbicides and get rid of unnecessary grass monocultures. I think that Colgate should join this movement, and help make our campus even prettier. To read more about it or join the movement, visit