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Students walked past by the High Rise Fields, where trees showed signs of autumn.

Credit: Yolanda Chen

With 7,000 trees and 100 acres of open space, Penn sticks out like a green thumb among urban campuses.

In fact, Penn Landscape Architect Bob Lundgren boldly claims that “there is no campus this green in the middle of such a big city.”

However, this has not always been the case. 

In the 1950s, when the campus was much more urban and the verdure was akin to that of a country club, Penn had manicured lawns and shrubs, and the trolley ran through present-day Hamilton Walk while cars could drive right up to College Hall. 

In 1956, Penn’s Trustees worked with the city to bury the trolley underground and, compounded with Trustee support in the early 1970s, the landscape program was permitted to develop Penn’s green space, which has seen an increase in tree quantity from about 1,200 in the 1950s to about 7,000 today.

“Back then, it really was a sterile environment,” Lundgren said. Today, the University architects' landscape focus is on cultivating urban ecology for environmental and human benefit.

Lundgren and his colleague, Landscape Planner Chloe Cerwinka, along with the Earth and Environmental Studies Department, are planning a "bioblitz" of the James G. Kaskey Memorial Park, the green space on campus casually know as the BioPond. All the species in the area will be observed over a 24-hour period and that data will be used as a baseline to understand and measure biodiversity in Penn's urban ecosystem.

The plan to increase biodiversity includes converting some lawns into meadows, turning the Penn Park orchard into a food forest, encouraging the growth of pollinator populations — complemented by the new student-led apiary — and shifting from annuals to more eco-friendly perennials. 

For example, some grass spaces are not being mowed to encourage meadow-like growth. Some of the motivation is financial: According to Lundgren, grass is one of the most expensive forms of real estate as it requires significant upkeep.

“We’re still keeping the ceremonial lawn where it’s important but where it doesn’t need to be, we're looking to changing it to more productive and responsible landscape,” he said.

One of the most noticeable changes is the increase in animal life. The urban ecosystem has seen large changes in its residents, with two families of hawks living on campus, as well as foxes, opossums, rabbits, new bird species, swallows, bees and groundhogs.

“We may even have too many groundhogs,” Cerwinka said.

“We didn’t say we want a bunch of groundhogs coming in but that’s what happens. And that’s what you want to happen,” Lundgren added.

The benefits of green space are also largely human. An aspect of motivating green infrastructure, such as green roofs and lawns, is the municipal requirement that property must be able to retain 1.5 inches of water during rainstorms.

Additionally, the trees in High Rise Field, though failing to mitigate the infamous wind tunnel, have many other benefits for the community.

“There are many aspects of the urban canopy, which are heating, cooling, stormwater collection, storing water and shade,” Lundgren said. “There is always a spot within two or three minutes walk where you can sit under a tree and eat a sandwich. That's pretty innovative for our campus.”

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