Dec. 1, 2021

Main UCalgary campus returns to its roots in landscape plan

First of several naturalization projects takes shape, supporting native biodiversity while transforming our campus environment
Swann Mall at UCalgary
The campus naturalization project purposefully brings back native plants to the area. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is returning to its prairie roots with the naturalization of its campus landscape.

In October, the Office of Sustainability hosted Naturalizing Swann Mall, an outdoor event to raise awareness and boost community engagement while honouring the Main Campus Landscape Plan. The redevelopment of this outdoor area, just west of the Administration Building, is Phase 1 of several naturalization projects now taking place on campus. Each phase bridges UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy, ii’ taa’poh’to’p, Institutional Sustainability Strategy and Campus Mental Health Strategy in an effort to establish a sustainable, inclusive and welcoming campus for present and future generations.

“We want our community to appreciate the campus landscape, not just as a place to walk through, but rather a space to engage with and protect,” says Kori Stene, BSc’16, UCalgary’s sustainability engagement co-ordinator.

Like most university campuses across Canada, our landscape is modelled after British horticulture practices. However, the Swann Mall project, which has been under restoration since 2018, is decolonizing its landscape with the integration of local grasses and wildflowers found in Alberta’s natural environment, supporting native biodiversity on campus. 

University Architect Jane Ferrabee shares an overview of UCalgary’s main campus landscape plan and its initial manifestation in Swann Mall.

University architect Jane Ferrabee shares an overview of UCalgary’s main campus landscape plan and its initial manifestation in Swann Mall.

Riley Brandt

What is naturalization?

Naturalized landscaping refers to the practice of purposefully bringing back native plants to an area,” says Jane Ferrabee, university architect and speaker at the Swann Mall event. “Once properly established, naturalized areas provide many environmental, social and economic benefits, such as reducing irrigation and maintenance demand and supporting local biodiversity.” 

The plan emphasizes the use of natural grasses representative of the foothills and prairie area, including foothills fescue, a grassland commonly found in the Calgary area. The Main Campus Landscape Plan was created with Indigenous Traditional Knowledge Keepers and other campus communities and honours the university’s commitment to walk “parallel paths,” incorporating Indigenous perspectives of the land and strengthening the overall campus community.

There are numerous environmental benefits to naturalization, notes Ferrabee. A prairie landscape, she says, “reduces the need for frequent mowing, allows for some snow storing immediate to the pathways and lightens our reliance on chemical fertilizers.”

The newer landscape is sculpted to address issues that may come from extreme stormwater events. With nations around the globe sounding the alarm on climate change, UCalgary’s main campus landscape plan supports carbon sequestration and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing water retention and promoting vegetation health across the campus.

Mathis Natvik, assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, and another speaker at the Swann Mall event, shared his knowledge of how an Alberta native landscape is mutually beneficial for a variety of groups.

“Indigenous people often have a spiritual connection with the land,” says Natvik. “A landscape that once grew their food, traditional medicines, and fostered their connection with the land are significant contributors in making our university more sustainable, leaving room for biodiversity to thrive on the campus.”

Learning on the land

“In promoting the plan and its relationship with the various strategies, we want to create opportunities for the campus community to learn about the Main Campus Landscape Plan, discuss campus landscape programming ideas, and new ways they would like to get involved,” says Alana-Dawn Eirikson, sustainability partnerships and events co-ordinator.

Attendees at the October event gathered in groups to discuss the significance of incorporating the foothills and prairie landscape across campus. Moving forward, students, staff and volunteers will have the opportunity to have a direct hand in weeding and landscape maintenance on campus.

“It’s an involved responsibility,” says Natvik. “We want people to see themselves as stewards for the community.” This type of experiential learning is critical in understanding the relationship of land within the Indigenous community and how it ties with the general health and well-being of the campus environment.

Looking forward

Naturalization of Swann Mall was Phase 1 for UCalgary as it moves toward a more sustainable campus. The next phase of redevelopment and naturalization will continue the push toward meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of Good Health and Well-Being; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Climate Action; Life on Land; and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, while aligning itself to the university’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy.

The second phase of the landscape plan will take place in the summer of 2022, focusing on the numerous pathways and intersections on the north side of Swann Mall. The next steps include the naturalization of the east-west pathways across campus, re-installation of the beloved sculpture by George Norris, known as the Prairie Chicken, and establishment of the prairie meadow and planter walls. Find a list of the non-invasive adapted plants at Swann Mall and the site plan here.

UCalgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability through the 2021 Sustainability Report.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, “in a good way,” UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.