Blue Sky Initiative Meets Olmsted

22 Jan

About a year ago, the Five-Colleges (University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Hampshire, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges) decided to think about ways to make all the schools more sustainable- individually and collectively. Last summer, hundreds of ideas generated by campus community members as part of the Blue Sky Initiative were tossed around, separated into different areas, and a shorter list of finalists was decided upon for further review. As a CEEDS intern, I was asked to look at that shorter list and choose one that interested me. I have always been interested in sustainable land use and so was immediately drawn to the Sustainable Landscapes Project. Fellow CEEDS intern Renee R. and I read over the proposal and started brainstorming ways that this initiative could be implemented on the Smith campus.

One of the unique things about the Smith landscape is that it was designed in 1893 by renowned landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted. Olmsted also designed Central Park in New York City, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” and many other well known National Parks here in the U.S.  The Smith landscape is typical of Olmsted, and incorporates his principle of highlighting the natural landscape and incorporating this natural beauty into the built environment. With the help of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum, changes to the campus have been made, as much as possible, in keeping with that original Olmstedian vision.

In 1995, the College issued a landscape mission statement. It reads:

” The Smith College landscape is a constructed environment. When we are careful, it is artful; and if we are thoughtful, it will be shaped by an ideal vision. An ideal landscape composition cannot be created whole; once created it cannot be maintained is static form. It changes in response to the requirements of the people who inhabit it. College campuses are ordinarily designed with an unusual intentionality. Smith College’s campus adds to usefulness and beauty a commitment to use the landscape as an integral part of the educational mission.”

This statement was the basis for the development of the Landscape Master Plan that was released in 1996. This Master Plan outlined the importance of keeping the Olmstedian principles ingrained in Smith’s landscape design. Renee and I took the above principles and those from Blue Sky’s Sustainable Landscape Initiative to create a new, contemporary mission statement for this new project.

“The goal of the project is to identify and convert underused and ecologically/economically costly spaces into more sustainable, cost-effective social areas. Currently, these are maintained lawns that serve no purpose for aesthetic enjoyment or education engagement. Parts of the campus landscape have not evolved with the current green mission of the College, and this project aims to rectify that while maintaining the original Olmstedian ideals of integrated natural landscapes and continual utility. The Sustainable Landscape Project provides the opportunity to integrate the campus into the educational experience. ”

With this new mission in mind we started to look at possible areas for conversion. We discovered that in the 1996 Master Plan, the space in front of Neilson Library was supposed to be developed as an outdoor social area. Why the idea was dropped is unknown, but since this area is currently planted in grass and not used by students it seems perfect for conversion!

As of right now, we have many ideas for how to transition our landscape to one which is less resource intensive to maintain and which incorporates more formal and informal “learning moments.” Our ideas include outdoor sitting areas, native and edible plantings, and engagement of different academic departments.  For now we will continue to gather more information and connect with others who might help with this project in the hopes that when President Christ and the Five College Board of Directors meet later this spring this project is one of the initiatives they choose to move forward on.
– Stefanie Cervantes, ’13olmstedplan

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