James Madison University

The East Campus Hillside Naturalization Project

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: January 31, 2011

PHOTO: CISAT HillsideWhere many students see an expanse of empty hillside between the interstate and the retention ponds on JMU’s east campus, world-renown artist and designer Michael Singer envisions a public art landscape that fosters ecological renewal.

Currently, ISAT faculty members and JMU Facilities Management consider the hill from the ISAT building down to the small creek to be an unused space, unsustainable and incompatible with the school’s recently adopted environmental stewardship initiative.

For several years, some professors have expressed interest in using it as a “living laboratory” to conduct outdoors environmental research, and others want to address the storm water run-off that pools at the bottom of the large hill and harms vegetation. An interdisciplinary effort bringing together JMU faculty, staff and students under Singer’s artistic guidance could bring these ideas to fruition by next year. 

PHOTO: Soil Samples“There’s a sort of a ‘hillside committee’ that’s responsible for organizing student research and faculty ideas about ways the hillside could be re-landscaped and redesigned to enhance both education at JMU and the landscape in terms of its aesthetic value on campus,” geographic science professor Dr. Maria Papadakis said. “The thing to emphasize is that it’s also tying in to the campus’ sustainability and stewardship initiatives.”

She is one of the four ISAT faculty members of the planning committee, which also includes Drs. Thomas Benzing, Jennifer Coffman and Wayne Teel. The chief designer of the project is Singer, a visiting scholar who specializes in infusing sustainable building principles and environmental responsibility with aesthetic design. Dr. Sharon Lovell, the Dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology, and John Ventura of Facilities Management are also involved, and the group convenes monthly when Singer visits Harrisonburg.

“The overall mission of the hillside committee is to engage the academic community at JMU, both faculty and students, in specific learning and research that can help to inform and assist in decision making about the future of the hillside site,” Singer said. While serving as a visiting scholar in ISAT, Singer is also assisting with a separate plan on the north end of campus to renovate the courtyard in front of Duke Hall.

PHOTO: Soil SamplesFaculty group members spent the fall semester studying properties of the landscape and are currently determining the range of space the project could encompass. In Papadakis and Coffman’s co-taught fall geography course, Human Interactions with the Physical Environment, seven groups of students conducted research on the hillside ranging from campus-wide student and faculty surveys gathering opinions about the landscape, to historical research of the land’s condition before JMU purchased it. Their study traced the land’s use back to the first arrival of Europeans and formed some preliminary descriptions about what it was like when Native Americans lived in the area.
Students also learned JMU Facilities Management’s the current landscape practices for the hillside, such as mowing and fertilizing schedules. The monoculture of grass on the hillside is not native to the area, making it higher maintenance.

“It takes a lot of facilities management efforts to keep the growth there under control, and they are very eager to see some plantings there that require less frequent attention on their part,” Lovell said. “Then [they] don’t need the human power or non-sustainable fuels for their equipment, and all of that improves the environment and helps with sustainability as well.”

In addition, ISAT students in Benzing’s Environmental Instrumentation & Measurement course tested soil samples from the hillside, and next semester his environmental hydrology class will research concepts for restoring the stream channel to a more natural and sustainable condition.
“The landscape serves many more functions than to simply ‘look beautiful,’” Benzing said. “For me, as part of the larger group, I tend to emphasize the function of the landscape to manage storm water and improve water quality.”

Senior ISAT major Adam Lynch, one of Benzing’s advisees, became involved as the planning committee’s sole student member because of his senior project to plan a restoration design for the stream at the bottom of the hillside. Although his project is due in May, he hopes to continue with the hillside naturalization committee until he graduates next December.

“It’s really exciting for me because I was planning the stream restoration as something that could be done down the line, but this team coming together and talking about real improvements to the area has gotten me optimistic that my part of the project could actually be implemented at some point,” Lynch said.

According to Lynch, some tentative ideas for the hillside could include transforming the area into native grassland, and engineering the stream to create meanders that would reduce erosion.

The committee plans to develop their preliminary findings into an “opportunities report” of development suggestions to present to JMU administration and President Rose, Lovell said. Spring-term ISAT classes, including Teel’s course, Sustainability: An Ecological Perspective, will help further conceptualize the approved plan’s potential landscape designs and estimate costs. First steps towards implementation could take place by late spring or summer of 2011, but the whole process of re-sculpting the landscape and phasing in new plants will likely take years to complete.

Until then, Lovell and Papadakis said the project provides an opportunity to educate current and future students about environmental sustainability concepts, and the team’s conversations have spawned talks of other potential projects with similar goals.

“One of the things they’re pressing is this is not only an environmental project, it’s a social project,” Lynch said of the group. “They’re trying to help people as much as they’re trying to help the environment, and they want students to interact with the hillside, and for teachers to be able to use it as an education resource. They’re trying to make it a more useful and beautiful place by making it more natural.”

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