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UW Needs an Ecological Land Management Course

By: Shane May

            University of Waterloo North Campus Gardens

The University should establish an Ecological Land Management course! This would be an excellent opportunity for students to step outside of their virtual world and step into an ecological world of physical work, planning, observational learning, math, engineering and an abundance of biology.  Eco-land-management is not just land management for yourself but land management for the environment.

The Purpose of Ecological Land Management 

The purpose of ecological land management is to meet the future needs of metropolitan areas that have replaced complex ecosystems with roads, parking lots and grass lawns.  Our current grass lawn culture teaches us to be indifferent to our environment; we build from the perspective of ownership, personal rights, greed, and fear, with whole industries developed around the eradication of insects, small animals, and plants.  We reinforce this way of life through advertisements and by-laws, and discourage complex ecosystems because they are seen as having a higher degree of liability than manicured grass ecosystems. 

To counter this pernicious harm to our environment, urban land management needs to incorporate diverse ecosystems and agricultural knowledge for food security.  The curriculum of an ecological land management program should be composed of fieldwork in the form of market farming and land management for the environment, accompanied with academic lectures that explore how to reestablish complex environments in urban grass managed landscapes.         

Two Objectives

The first objective has two parts: 

Part 1: The land management course should establish a localized market farming system to grow vegetables for the cafeterias at the university and/or sell/give the food directly to the students. The purpose behind localized market farming is to teach students about the physical challenges, logistics and long-term planning associated with a farming to market system. 

In addition, the land management program should strive for companion planting: a method of planting that supports a variety of species, for example, the classic three sisters – corn, beans, and squash. Land management systems should include learning and understanding of leaving habitat for overwintering insect species, such as insects that lay eggs in hollow stems. Another technique is to allow soil to go unturned to promote ground bee pollinators.   

Part 2: Students will submit a plan to establish their own ecological land management plan on a plot of ~9 square meters. The students should be given a choice to make their own individual eco-management plan or group together and design a larger ecological system.  The choice of having an individual management plan mimics how rural neighbourhoods are arranged: rows of houses with individual grass lawns.  

The whole course should have a focus on observing the managed environment. These could include looking at what kind of butterflies, bees, moths and other species thrive in managed spaces; asking the question of what plants and wildlife interest them (and designing a habitat for that interest by providing food and shelter); and growing food for their own consumption.  In the past 20 years, school systems around the world have adopted curriculum centered in eco-land-management techniques to achieve sustainable food streams, which shows their students how food makes it from a garden to the table.  

The second objective: 

Composting – The process of running an ecological garden will require a robust composting system.  University of Waterloo generates an abundance of organic waste. WUSA has four 55 cubic foot composters and volunteers to collect paper and organic waste from 18 campus locations. However, composting stops when winter starts. It has been proposed to build a pilot anaerobic digester to process organic waste all year round under a co-op program run by the custodial department.   The combination of an ecological gardening system coupled with an anaerobic digestion system would have synergistic effects in teaching students and achieving a higher degree of sustainability for the university. 

School systems generate substantial amounts of organic waste, so they are ideally suited for students to learn through hands-on practice the value (financial and ecology) of sustainable practices. The Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted our economy by displacing many jobs permanently. Establishing a small scale digester will create jobs and practices that complement sustainability goals and help with the recovery of our economy. 

Ontario’s Ministries of Education and Health encourage school systems to use gardening as a tool for education and health as well as host of non-profit organizations that sponsor sustainable gardening systems in Ontario. 

__________________________

The University of Waterloo has the space and resources to provide a gardening course to teach young adults the value in developing and maintaining a diverse ecosystem.  Gardening crosses multiple disciplinary lines, such as biology, entomology, engineering, geography. Gardening is also excellent for promoting physical and mental health. As more people become interested in gardening, industries will develop around this culture, and biodiversity will become a standard in building designs, thereby driving sustainable measures. 

A course in Ecological Gardening can contribute to a student’s ability to excel in any job in a variety of ways and help the university achieve a higher degree of sustainability, for example:  

  • Critical thinking skills – A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what they know, and they know how to make use of the information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform themself.
    • Ecological Gardening promotes this skill set, as gardening is not static. Gardeners have to recognize problems, research how to deal with them, keep track of when and what to plant, harvest, water, weed and pest control from one year to the next. 
    • Gardening also requires social cooperation and communication between co-workers, a good skill set for any job.
  • Mental Health – Undergrads are under a lot of pressure and high cortisol levels inhibit memory retention and learning. As a solution, it is well established that gardening helps reduce stress.   
  • Physical and Mental Coordination – Nearly every aspect of gardening requires coordinated physical mental activity increasing oxygen delivery to the cells promoting physical and cognitive development i.e. contributing to higher grades. 
  • Structure & Discipline – Ecological Gardening brings structure and discipline into a student’s life, teaching students to be responsible and respectful to each other and the environment.
  • Sustainability (“Policy 53” – University of Waterloo’s Policy on Environmental Sustainability) – In terms of environmental sustainability, ecological gardening meets the scope and purpose of Policy 53’s commitment to creating a campus where environmental sustainability is a core part of its culture.  Ecological gardening will meet and exceed Policy 53’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Synergies can be obtained by coupling the gardening program with composting organic waste from the University’s cafeterias and food courts.  It has been proposed to build a pilot anaerobic digester to process organic waste all year round under a co-op program run by the custodial department.

Featured image: Pexels

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