From Ivy of the West to native Californian: How Pomona College is rethinking campus landscaping

Green plants located in an outside courtyard on Pomona's campus
As part of a multi-year plan to reduce campus water usage, Pomona College planted native and drought-tolerant plants in a bustling walkway. (Sarah Ziff • The Student Life)

In season three, episode eight of the comedy-drama television series “Gilmore Girls,” the cast is featured visiting Yale University. In reality, actors strolled across Pomona College’s Marston Quad with Bridges Auditorium in the background.

It seems only fitting for Pomona’s campus to pass as an Ivy — after all, according to Pomona’s website, the school was founded to create “a college of the New England type” in California.

However, in a multi-year effort to balance aesthetics, sustainability and compliance with water regulations, Pomona has been making the shift from New England plant life to species better equipped to thrive in California’s harsh climate. Most recently, the College reinvigorated a previously unadorned space between the Walker Hall and Clark V dormitories.

This installation, executed during the weeks of Oct. 2 and 9, has already piqued interest for its attempts to address campus aesthetics and eco-responsibility. Although not all the plant species are native, Assistant Vice President of Facilities & Campus Services Robert Robinson said that all new additions were chosen for their drought-tolerance.

The evolution of the plant life along the walkway between Walker and Clark V symbolizes Pomona’s landscaping design shifts over the years. While the area was originally bordered by grass, it was converted to mulch eight years ago.

This change was part of a campus-wide effort towards sustainability that entailed removing about 40,000 square feet of grass turf over the past 10 years. The decision to replant the mulched areas was initiated by 2022-2023 ASPC President Vera Berger PO ’23, who sought to transform the patch into an “interactive, interesting area that provides opportunities for students to take advantage of the outdoor spaces,” Robinson said.

Pitzer College Professor of Environmental Analysis Monica Mahoney emphasized the complications that come with the “aesthetic overlay” of growing New England plants in unfit environments.

“It causes all sorts of maintenance issues and biodiversity issues and actually tends to cost institutions a lot of money in maintaining a non-native ecosystem or garden,” Mahoney said.

To maintain a sense of continuity throughout its expansion, Pomona developed a set of landscape design guidelines that complement the existing architectural themes. This meant developing a variety of districts, each with unique building and planting standards.

The formal district — encompassing the Marston Quad, Little Bridges and Carnegie Hall area — features New England-esque aesthetics, requiring grass and trees in its landscaping guidelines. Robinson clarified that the formal district is unlikely to see native planting anytime soon. However, in other areas like the science district — where the Seaver buildings and Estella reside — there is room to experiment with different types of landscaping.

In other words, Robinson said, “there’s a method to the madness.”

While there’s no hard and fast policy for future drought-resistant landscaping projects, opportunities for integrating drought-resistant plants are always on the table.

Pomona adheres to Claremont’s city regulations for water conservation, including reduced watering days when necessary. To most efficiently utilize water, the school implements drip irrigation systems. But drought-resistant plants also play a large role in minimizing water use.

Mahoney highlighted some key advantages of native species.

“The plants that are native to a place or a region can tell us so much about the history, the past, present and future of the ecosystem — both the biotic ecosystem, but also the cultural ecosystem that embodies and inhabits this place,”she said.

Mahoney also commented on the benefits of such species to students.

“Students come to this place unaware of the Mediterranean semi-arid environment, and it really challenges their aesthetic notions about biodiversity and a rich, lush, biotic community,” Mahoney said.

Many of Pomona’s new buildings are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, a globally recognized green building rating system. While LEED prioritizes aspects like energy sustainability, carbon reduction and the efficient use of utilities such as electricity and gas, it gives minimal attention to water conservation in its guidelines.

This revelation may come to a surprise to many, considering California’s constant drought state. Robinson emphasized that the decision to integrate drought-tolerant plants in the new garden was driven by the fact that it was the “the right thing to do,” as opposed to a strategic move to acquire LEED points.

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