Editorial Board: In Face of Drought, Colleges Must Rethink Campus Appearances

It’s no secret that California is experiencing one of its worst droughts in recorded history. And while its effects may not be readily apparent to students of the 5Cs, in our habitat of the grassy expanses and blooming fauna, signs of stress are beginning to show, including the death of trees on campus (see “Falling Trees Reveal Depth of Claremont’s Drought Problem” by Saahil Desai and Anthony Perna on Page 2).

From trees collapsing outside our windows to problems of larger scale, like the desperation of farmers in the parched Central Valley, one thing is clear: Residents of California must all take action to lessen water consumption. While we think individual water use is important for everyone to consider, we would like to focus here on the water consumed by the physical environment and how we can tackle that consumption as a collection of institutions.

On this note, we are delighted by the sight of bare dirt on the Platt Median, part of a blossoming turf removal program around the 5Cs that Desai and Perna’s article describes.

Thank you, members of the facilities departments, for pursuing turf removal. This push to eliminate grass is an important first step in seriously addressing the drought on campus, and we would like to see it continue and expand.

But we would also like to see initiatives become part of a collective consideration of our campus aesthetic: of what we, as students of the 5Cs, want our campuses to look like—and what fixtures we are willing to go without for the sake of water conservation.

For example, take the fountains. We acknowledge that these add something to campus: They’re elegant and iconic (here we must shamefacedly acknowledge that we based our own logo on the fountain in Bixby Plaza). Fountains look and sound nice. They provide for the hallowed tradition of birthday fountaining, or ponding, depending on which school you attend.

Nevertheless, we urge administrations across the consortium to shut them off, following the example of our neighbor, Loyola Marymount University, whose administration shut off its fountain in July. It may be true that our aquatic displays are only a minor component of total water usage on campus; nonetheless, they are using a scarce resource for decorative purposes, and California’s drought has advanced past the point of making comparative allowances.

Beyond the actual water savings incurred, turning off the fountains would be a clear, visual statement that our administrations care about the severity of this environmental and economic crisis—and so should we. Too many students on campus are still wasting water in the numerous, near-unconscious ways that we must all actively correct, and walking past one empty fountain after another might help give us the reminder that we need to take this drought seriously.

If administrations are worried about the potential reactions of prospective students to dry marble and parched statues, why not incorporate our ecological sensitivity into tours? The silent fountains could be a talking point for tour guides to mention all of the admirable efforts that individuals, groups and our administrations have already made toward reducing the environmental impact of our learning environment.

This brings us back to the broader question we raised: the question of what we think our campuses should look like and what messages we want to send through our landscaping and architectural decisions. No matter what aesthetic our campuses may have adhered to in the past, the severity of this drought—not to mention last week’s brutal heat wave—reminds us that we cannot ignore the realities of our unique climate when we determine the future characteristics of our physical space.

These decisions are largely made by the administrations, who assert that there are certain features we all desire in our campus. This is why it is of the utmost importance for students to speak up and say, clearly, what they value in a campus and what they think prospective students value in a campus. How important is grass to you? Fountains? What sacrifices should we collectively make? Talk to friends, talk to professors, send us letters: The reservoirs that aren’t already dry are falling, and now is the time to make our voices heard.

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