Duke Turns Attention To Trees

Sustainability Strategic Plan to evaluate natural resources

An aerial shot of Duke Forest shows the vast array of trees growing across Duke's campuses and property. The Campus Sustainability Committee has organized a group in 2015 to focus on natural landscapes. Photo courtesy of Mark Hough.
An aerial shot of Duke Forest shows the vast array of trees growing across Duke's campuses and property. The Campus Sustainability Committee has organized a group in 2015 to focus on natural landscapes. Photo courtesy of Mark Hough.

With 7,052 acres of wilderness surrounding Duke’s campus, it’s no wonder the nickname “university in the forest” aptly describes Duke’s place in Durham.

As the campus continues to evolve – whether through renovations or new construction – Duke’s footprint may change but not its commitment to natural resources.

Duke’s Campus Sustainability Committee has organized a group in 2015 to focus on natural landscapes and make recommendations for broad goals in campus planning and evaluation of open spaces. The group includes representatives from Facilities Management, Office of the University Architect and graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment.

They’ll work to create a framework for evaluating the health and importance of campus landscapes and prioritize improvements to inform future planning efforts.

“Our goal isn’t necessarily to create a methodology to say we can’t build here or there, but really to find a way to show certain areas have high value,” said Mark Hough, campus landscape architect who serves on Duke’s Campus Sustainability Committee. “We want to try to quantify the value of our resources because there are lots of benefits, from aesthetics to helping with storm water runoff.”

Duke’s efforts mirror a growing trend among higher education institutions, including Stanford, Cornell and University of Indiana. Hough said that identifying sustainability best practices is becoming more common as college campuses expand.  

To start the ongoing conversations, Hough has consulted landscape architects and ecologists on a pilot project analyzing Chapel Woods behind Duke Chapel. The consultants are conducting quantitative and qualitative research, studying the history, biodiversity and ecology of the area in order to better articulate the value the woods add to the campus.

Among other aspects, the assessment is tracking diversity of trees, topography, drainage and its use as a habitat for animals. Maps will be created to highlight these aspects and others, and then layer them with human use to get a better idea about how to preserve spaces as necessary.

In March, Duke’s Board of Trustees approved the dedication of Chapel Woods and the newly named Lewis E. Anderson Woods, between the Bryan Center and Towerview Road, as protected landscapes.

“The more we know about what we have on campus, the better decisions we can make when we have conversations about construction and our master plan,” Hough said. “It’s not about just finding valuable spaces and minimizing others, it’s about identifying areas that can be left alone, areas that may need restoration or finding spaces that may not last much longer unless we do something.” 

Duke hopes to roll out this process out to other campus areas to aid in planning for future projects, whether that includes new buildings or expanding on current ones. 

“Focusing on natural resources allows us to explore the give-and-take between growth and preservation,” said Casey Roe, outreach coordinator for Sustainable Duke. “By cataloguing natural spaces and exploring their natural and social value, we’ll be able to ensure smart growth on campus.”