Tag Archives: sustainability

Out the Window

On the north end of the greenhouses is the Greenhouse Building. I have a desk there in the room we call “The Lab”, even though it’s not really being used as a lab any more. It is full of plants, odds and ends, equipment used for the Plant Propagation class, pictures of plants, and the engraver. It’s my home base.

The window in the lab faces north, toward Flagg Road and the “North Woods”. There’s an arborvitae up against the building, which is full of birds, partly blocking the view. But here’s some of what I can see:lawn behind greenhousebehind greenhouse

trees behind greenhousedriveway behind greenhousee

I just want to let you know that it’s all going to be paved. If you read this post from January, or this one from August, you know that I am not really a “tree hugger”. Sometimes trees need to be cut down — I’ve got no problem with that. But if you read this post from November, you’ll know how I feel about paving open space for no good reason. (The destruction of URI’s Agronomy Research Farm for parking came at a time when the number of small (tiny) farms in RI is actually growing…and here’s a picture of that parking lot at 11:30 AM on Monday September 9. First full week of classes.)

parking lot

Looking Northwest.

parking lot

From Plains Road.

Somebody thinks the area behind the greenhouse is needed for more parking. Between the 30 or so paved acres at the bottom of Kingston Hill and the 10 at the top behind the Fine Arts building, haven’t we done enough damage? Isn’t it time to think about at the very least, a parking garage instead of more asphalt sprawl — or consider the bigger picture of adequate public transportation?

sweet gum tree

Sweet Gum (Liquidamber) behind the Greenhouse Building.

Each day when I turn on my computer and open up URI’s homepage, I see the words “green” and “sustainable”. I’m not buying it.

Farmland and Open Space at URI

Every morning I drive or bike to work on campus by way of Plains Road. It is a beautiful route, with open fields on either side as I approach the Agronomy Research Farm and weather station at the turn in the road. But wait…

Without  public information sessions, hearings, or any review from the town, URI is destroying a priceless treasure — good agricultural land. (Land being used for agricultural research as well as supplying some fresh local food to the URI dining halls.) Once it is gone, it NEVER comes back. The fact that this decision was made without public input, and the fact that the contractor is carrying away the beautiful soil, makes it even worse. So much for “sustainability” and “thinking green” at URI.  Many thanks to Frank Carini of ecoRI News for getting this story out. It is reblogged from http://www.ecori.org.


The University of Rhode Island is removing about 15 acres of farmland in the Flagg Road/Plains Road area to build a parking lot and new road.

By FRANK CARINI,  ecoRI News Staff

KINGSTON — Rhode Island’s diminishing quantity of farmland recently took another hit — some would even call the loss a decisive blow.

Construction on the University of Rhode Island campus, at Flagg Road and Plains Road, has forever removed a significant portion of agricultural land from the state’s supply. The building of a 330-vehicle parking lot and a new road began about a month before Rhode Island voters are asked to approve $20 million in bond money (Question 6 on the Nov. 6 state ballot) for Narragansett Bay restoration, open space protection, state park improvements and, yes, farmland preservation.

This ironic twist wasn’t lost on Michael Sullivan, a professor of agronomy at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “This is an exceptionally poor example of environmental advocacy,” the former director of the state Department of Environmental Management said. “The state will soon be asking voters to fund $4.5 million for farmland preservation while a land-grant university is paving over 15 acres.”

URI, once known as the State Agricultural School, was established as a land-grant institution (pdf) in the late 1880s. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to states for them to develop or sell to raise money to establish and endow land-grant universities.

Digging up agricultural land to make way for more development, especially in a state that has lost 80 percent of its farmland since 1945 — only about 40,000 acres remain in production today — and is actively seeking to increase the amount of food it grows, has rubbed many, including Sullivan, the wrong way.

Piles of high-quality agricultural soil are being removed from the construction site.“We’re not just taking about some of the best topsoil in the region; we’re talking about some of the finest soil in the eastern United States,” Sullivan said. “The idea that we needed to ruin this land is fundamentally appalling. Where is the sound thinking? The change in hydrology isn’t reversible. The change we’re making to the land isn’t reversible.”

Sullivan blamed the university for relying heavily on short-term fiscal analysis rather than on sound environmental management.

This parking lot project was originally part of the 2000 University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus Master Plan, which called for “a seamless connection between Flagg Road and Plains Road.” Flagg Road already had been extended to add commuter parking, and the master plan recommended extending Flagg Road further south to meet Plains Road.

Some of the high-quality topsoil being removed from the Flagg Road and Plains Road construction area is being stored at URI’s Peckham Farm, according to Robert Weygand, the university’s vice president for administration and finance. The rest, he said, was being taken by the project’s contractor, the Narragansett Improvement Co., as part of the contract it signed with the university. Weygand said the work was needed because of the lack of on-campus faculty, staff and student parking. He also took issue with the construction project being compared to ballot Question 6.

“The bond issue is different than what is happening here,” Weygand said. “The bond question is about private property.”

Weygand said the ongoing work includes a range of environmental improvements. He noted that the parking lot surface will be porous and feature a subsurface of crushed stone to better filter runoff. He said the project was incorporating drainage improvements, and making use of rain gardens and stormwater management bioswales. He also noted that the work would improve drainage from the turf fields to the north, which will reduce runoff into White Horn Brook.

Project detractors, however, aren’t impressed. They point to the 40 or so trees that were cut down, including a stand of white pine, and made into a small mountain of woodchips. They note the work of a few-years-old climate change study is gone, because the trees involved in the research project were dug up and removed. Other more established research plots were plowed over and will be moved further north on Flagg Road to land that was once leased to turf farmers.

These concerned people, many of whom are URI affiliated (few would speak with ecoRI News on the record), are angry that little notification or information was provided about the project before work began. They are upset that no real public hearing process was held, and note that some considerations, such as a parking garage, would have reduced the project’s footprint.

They are particularly worried that this work adds to the state’s growing amount of impervious surface. About 12 percent of Rhode Island is currently covered by asphalt, cement and roofing.

The new home to a URI parking lot and road is in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, and houses a sole-source aquifer, which Sullivan called the finest drinking water aquifer in the state. The land also is part of the well-protection area for recharge of the drinking water wells for the university and the village of Kingston.

“This entire project is inconsistent with the environmental advocacy that the university purports to be important,” Sullivan said. “We’re bulldozing as fast as we can, and giving away quality topsoil — all to build a high-speed curved road.”

(Note from uribg: The existing parking lot, which was also built where good agricultural land once was, is A: mostly empty and B: already has a road through it.)

Go Native!

removing sodOn October 17th, junior Kristie Saliba’s URI 101 class began installation of a “Native Plant System” in the URI Botanical Gardens. These students are interested in the Environmental Horticulture and Turf major, and it was a great hands-on experience  for them. The first part of the job was to prepare the site, and like any job done well, it’s all in the prep! Kristie’s students spent about three hours removing sod and spreading our own Botanical Gardens compost on the area. Mike and Kyle pitched in to help, as well as Kate Venturini, who designed the garden (and is the brains behind the Landscape Restoration Program at the Outreach Center).

kristie removing sodWhen the site was ready, volunteers from the URI Master Gardener’s Association began  planting. Native asters, goldenrod, and spiraea were donated by Rhody Native, the Rhode Island-grown native plants initiative. Vaccinium corymbosum (Highbush Blueberry),  Lindera benzoin (Spicebush), and Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi (Bearberry) were donated by the URI Botanical Gardens. The installation will be completed next week, and while some of the perennials are still small, they are off to a great head start with fall planting.

spreading compostOf course, there are many native plants already in the Botanical Gardens, as well as beautifully adapted, non-invasive plants from other parts of the world. But natives are a fundamental part of the landscape, which this garden will highlight. As I explained on the garden tours this summer, “Native plants feed native insects, and native insects feed native birds and amphibians, and you can just follow that right up the food chain.”  A simple way to understand the importance of these sometimes overlooked plants in caring for our landscape and environment.

spreading compost

The right plant? The wrong plant?

corinthian columnThe mantra of sustainable horticulture here at URI is “the right plant in the right place”. Then there’s the opposite — “a weed is just a plant in the wrong place”. But more often, a plant in the wrong place is diseased, stunted, wilted,under attack, or just plain dead. Every plant has specific needs or preferences for growing conditions. These include light, moisture, temperature, and soil nutrients. In a site where the conditions don’t match the plant’s requirements, the plant will not thrive, and  will be more susceptible to pathogens, insects, and environmental damage. Once this happens, inputs of perhaps pesticides, fungicides,  extra water, or  fertilizer are needed, which is the UNsustainable part. Or, sometimes the inputs are used as an attempt to prevent the plant’s decline.

The inputs are unsustainable for a wide variety of reasons. They could be made from petroleum, a limited resource. They could irreversibly contaminate the groundwater or kill beneficial insects. When you think about it, even extra watering to prop up a moisture loving plant sited in a hot dry spot is unsustainable. Our clean drinking water is also a limited resource, as we know all too well from the past summer.

Another definition of  sustainability within  horticulture is:

“…design, construction, operations and maintenance practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” ( American Sustainable Sites Initiative).

So that’s what we try to do. But sometimes it takes a little bit of experimenting to find the right plant/right place. Yesterday as I cut back the peonies around the stage,the Acanthus planted behind them 2 years ago demanded my attention. It’s huge, green, and fresh looking.Very Healthy. The site faces south, in front of a 4-foot stone wall. The Acanthus, a native of the Mediterranean, obviously appreciate the extra warmth that radiates from the stones of the wall and the stage. I went looking for another Acanthus planted the same year. It also faces south, near the rose arbor, but has large rhododendrons behind it instead of stone. This one was puny compared to the one on the stage! A little bit colder, a little more shade, and perhaps a little drier with the huge rhodies behind it taking up moisture.  It makes all the difference in the world. I’ll  move the small one to a better site.