An Interview with UC San Diego's Sustainability Landscaper
Status-Driven Sustainability and Prospective Environmental Efforts on Campus
BY GILLIAN RAMIREZ
Artwork by Momei Fang
UCSD is well-known for its climate research, particularly at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and coastal location which lends to an environmentally-minded campus culture. As a student, I can confidently express that, while a number of students are environmental advocates, inaction and lack of interest in community-centered resilience to climate change exhibits how the school puts up an environmentally conscious front to market to a larger audience. While there are things to be lauded, like the number of LEED certified buildings, there is more the campus could be doing. I interviewed Chris Johnson, previously a Groundskeeper and currently the Sustainability Landscaper, to learn more about campus greenery, a proposed arboretum, and his appreciation for nature.
I entered his office and saw a complete Gilmore Girls DVD collection hidden amongst towering stacks of botanical books and Bigfoot paraphernalia, spotting these intricacies like easter eggs; I knew immediately that Chris Johnson was unlike any other. While his office was cluttered, I also felt that he was orderly and had a method to his madness. As we spoke, I was not too surprised to learn that this eclectic man had also created a handful of short stories, including “Moonlight & Sunshine: Save their Home,” “The Next Forest,” and “Pine Tree ABC.” I first met Chris last spring when he gave a presentation for the Cultural Design Practicum with Professor Parish about the greenery in Seventh, where he casually mentioned his 20 years of service to UCSD and a six-year effort to develop an arboretum at UCSD. It was clear that Chris possessed a wealth of knowledge about the school’s vegetation and sustainability efforts, so I was thrilled to be able to interview him for this piece.
Living in southern California, I know that water is a big climate concern. I asked Chris about the school’s water usage and current landscape. He praised the school for the amount of reclaimed water being used on campus, all new buildings are mandated to use reclaimed water, but more of it needs to be used. Identifiable on campus by the purple piping covers and frequent signage, reclaimed water is water from different sources that is treated and reused. This practice is gaining widespread popularity and is environmentally conscious. On the other hand, Chris was fervent about the excessive planting of California sycamores. These trees are located throughout campus and near every new building. While it is a native tree, the leaves fall most of the year, are prone to diseases, and its leaves can cause an allergic reaction. He stated that multiple workers have had coughing fits and issues breathing after inhaling the dust from the leaves’ hairs. This is important because there are other native plants the campus can center that, which would cause less discomfort or harm to the landscaping crew and students on campus. Among the landscape of sycamores, grass, and rocks, the campus is missing vibrant flowers and blossoming trees. He advocated for greater diversity and creativity in what the landscapers are allowed to plant. There are a handful of visually pleasing trees in pockets of campus, but adding variation to the drab and fire hazardous torrey pines and sycamores would be refreshing. Chris and his colleagues should be consulted in campus planning so their voices can be heard. Their on-the-ground perspective is essential, especially if the trees they deal with are hard to work with or are negatively impacting them.
As we speak, Chris mentioned that there is currently no arboretum or botanical garden in La Jolla. Essentially an outdoor museum, an arboretum is “a botanical garden specializing in trees or woody plants,” according to ArbNet. It is valuable not only to students, but for the community as a whole. Eight years ago, Chris Johnson and his colleagues brought forward a plan for an arboretum to school administrators. In short, the arboretum would have four main components: a nursery, a composting center, a food forest, and a recreational space. A campus arboretum would help combat campus food insecurity, provide accessible natural space, provide mental and physical benefits, and allow for educational and research opportunities.
For a better understanding of the proposed arboretum, view Chris’ proposal here. I urge you to read the proposal’s introduction to understand how practical and realistic this is. We have the resources, supportive staff, and a nature-loving community on campus that would make this an amazing addition to campus. It has been nearly a decade that Chris and others have been asking for an arboretum, laying out every step and providing practically every necessary resource, yet administrators continuously shoot them down. Multiple times, he has been told that UCSD is “not the culture” for an arboretum. Are you serious? I found this ironic considering the campus and UC system is actively engaged in carbon neutrality efforts. Dismissing ideas like the arboretum, which could further build a culture of environmentalism and support the campus goals themselves, lead me to feel that UCSD’s climate efforts are more about advertising than values. We need people to back this needed facility that would benefit everyone.
For someone as knowledgeable and interested in plants as Chris, I was curious what his general perspectives on climate change and nature were. He expressed that there are many important aspects to sustainability, including energy, water, transportation, and education, but he found his home in conservation. Efforts like recycling, water reduction and gardening are his strong suits. He shared that ⅓ of the waste in landfill bins is recyclable, but students don’t know how to separate it properly. Thankfully though, recent composting efforts from the Student Sustainability Collective or the newly implemented TritonToGo program are examples of well-implemented and thought-out projects which can significantly decrease campus waste.
Among Chris’ knowledge on nature, he is also an expert in repairing bikes. He shared anecdotally that he once found a fully functioning, brand new bike in its box in one of the dumpsters next to an ERC dorm. A student threw away that bike. While this is obviously a rare occurrence relative to other recyclable products, it is still a testament to the lack of procedures or awareness about what to recycle.
Chris shared that his near 20-year experience working with UCSD’s landscape has led him to be more observational and appreciative of nature’s beauty. He expressed, “If you care about what you do, you learn to do it better.” While this sentiment may seem obvious, it is very powerful and a testament to the fruit of one’s labor, quite literally for Chris. Learning about a friend’s interests or passions makes me more appreciative of the work they do and demonstrates their dedicated character.
Another thing Chris said stuck with me as he emphasized that we are “tree blind,” walking by trees and not knowing anything about them. We agreed that plaques or tree maps would be a nice addition to help people become more acquainted with their surroundings and to promote tree diversity. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt College has a tree from every continent, except Antarctica, to align with the college’s global citizen approach. The beautifully blooming trees and their origins go unknown to passersby who watch them change throughout the seasons. For a school of STEM majors who desperately need to go outside more often, reconnecting with nature by being more aware of your surroundings and the plants on campus seems to be an effective and accessible strategy. This can bring about a greater appreciation for the natural world and a refreshing break to the hours spent on schoolwork.
The disconnect from nature, as Chris is suggesting, along with the school’s priority of advancing science and research translates into sustainability efforts focused almost solely on infrastructure and technology. Focusing on major-scale projects, often involving the approval of high-level officials and long-term planning, can overshadow the impact of more easily-attainable, student-led projects. The 49 LEED certified buildings and renovations on campus are amazing, but as Chris shared, green buildings are not the only marker of environmentalism. There are many important avenues to explore beyond green buildings, but the school is undervaluing their importance. As the UCSD Green New Deal also highlights, the “crux of ‘carbon neutrality’ now relies on ‘offset’ schemes… we pay people in low-income countries to plant trees or use lower-emissions technologies.” UCSD is using its resources to partner with organizations like SDG&E to research a hydrogen blending project to study the impacts and effectiveness of hydrogen blended natural gas, despite the evidence that it is dangerous and poses an environmentally racist threat to communities of color. The main players in the school’s sustainability facade aren’t going to cut it. Below is a striking example supporting my claim that the campus places less value on student-led environmental efforts.
The UCSD Guardian recently published an article about the school’s minimal efforts towards Indigenous inclusivity and disingenuous Kumeyaay land acknowledgements. For those of us who attended UCSD pre-COVID, you may remember a small Kumeyaay community garden near the bust of Thurgood Marshall. The intent of the garden was to “provide our Native American community a place to practice indigenous uses for native plants in San Diego.” Here is a post on Facebook for those who were not there or do not remember. You may be surprised to learn that this garden no longer exists. I asked Chris about this project and he shared that he helped to create it. The students who planned it for their senior project were given permission to use the space quickly and almost effortlessly, a feat that Chris was shocked by, given his lack of success at similar small-scale projects. However, the garden was short-lived, and was destroyed by the construction of Seventh and replaced with more drab torrey pines, sage and succulents. Insincere efforts to temporarily please students and on-lookers seems to be a continuous thread in the school’s decisions and to maintain their image. The sustainability goals of the school should not interfere with their dedication to Indigenous inclusion and awareness. I recognize that our campus needs new buildings, but if UCSD valued this student effort or our Indigenous community, then they should be actively collaborating with students from this community to identify another campus space to be dedicated in-perpetuity to this important effort.
Jen Bowser, the Sustainability Program Analyst since 2016, plays a large and influential role in real sustainability progress on campus. Acting as the liaison between students and administration, she manages UCSD’s Sustainability Resource Center among a handful of other sustainability efforts. To our dismay, she is leaving the school and her pivotal role is up in the air. We need people like Jen to support the students and show up for us as we deserve. Knowing this information, the direction of the school’s sustainability efforts feel even more uncertain.
I would like to thank Chris Johnson for taking the time to be interviewed, the knowledge he shared with me about nature, and the work he continues daily to improve our student gardens and landscape. If you are interested in getting involved in gardens on campus, click this link. Look forward to a future ERC tree tour by Chris Johnson as well!
From proudly rocking my free orientation shirt to publicly criticizing the school, the main takeaway is to hold institutions accountable and be the change you want to see. It feels like most of the real change happens after years of persistent efforts and the hard work by the community. Take the recent UC-wide strike by graduate student workers strike as an example. While our students still deserve more, the strike is a recent example of the power in the masses as they won a new contract including pay increases, additional childcare reimbursement, extended paid leave among other improved conditions. The school is headed in the right direction, but change is slow and suggestions are rarely listened to the first time around. Persistence is key. We desperately need an arboretum, for our well-being and the planet’s. We should support dedicated individuals, like Chris, who are working to make a difference. If you are interested in contacting Chris, his email is email@example.com. He is happy to assist in any gardening efforts, to converse about this issue more, and host a tree and/or foraging tour. He may even give you a young plant or seeds to grow on your own!