In contrast to typical academic landscapes, which are often designed exclusively for aesthetic value, the AJLC landscape was designed to use renewable resources (like rainwater and solar energy) to support structural and functional biodiversity, to demonstrate community-scale sustainable agriculture, and to minimize negative effects on downstream ecosystems.
The building and portions of the surrounding landscape occupy approximately 58,000 square feet and are managed according to ecological design principles. The landscape ecosystems were initially planted and managed by emeritus biology professor David Benzing and multiple Oberlin students. These spaces include a restored wetland and forest, lawn areas planted with a special low-mow grass mix, a small fruit orchard, and a raised-bed organic vegetable garden. The wetland and forest incorporated over 70 native plant species. In addition to the obvious educational and aesthetic value, high biodiversity has allowed the AJLC wetland to serve as a valuable species repository for Northeast Ohio, a bioregion which has lost over 90% of its native wetland ecosystem.
In addition to providing critical habitat and biodiversity, the wetland and the adjoining 10,000 gallon buried cistern also serve as a stormwater retention basin. Following a rainstorm, water falling on most academic buildings and grounds quickly drains to storm sewers and results in surges in flow that can damage receiving rivers and streams. Rain that falls on the AJLC building and landscape enters the stormwater system more slowly or is retained on site. Several thousand gallons of water captured by the building’s roof are directed into the storage cistern and used to maintain the water level in the wetland pond during dry periods of the summer.
The garden and orchard demonstrate that a significant fraction of food can be produced in backyards and public spaces-even in urban settings.
Urban gardening and local agriculture are alternatives to reliance on a contemporary food distribution system which transports food an average of 1,500 miles and burns 10 units of fossil fuel energy for each unit of food energy delivered to our table. Each summer, student fellows manage the AJLC landscape. They plant and harvest a wide array of produce from the raised-bed organic garden. In a good year, the dwarf fruit orchard produces roughly 50 bushels of organically grown apples and pears. Fruit and vegetables that are not eaten by students, faculty and visitors are donated to Oberlin Community Services to help feed others in Lorain County who suffer from food insecurity.
The landscape as a whole is in what ecologists refer to as an “aggregating stage ” of ecosystem development.
Solar radiation in the photosynthetically active portion of the spectrum is being used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stored as biomass in plants, soil and sediments. Long-term storage of carbon dioxide, even in urban ecosystems, is potentially important for reducing the impact of fossil fuel combustion on the climate. Assuming that current management practices are maintained at the AJLC, soils, wetland sediments, and woody plants will continue to remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the next century.