This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, an innovative and influential legal agreement between seven US states that governs water rights on the Colorado River. In recognition of this anniversary, Colorado State University Libraries will highlight a series of stories in SOURCE about the ripple effects of this 100-year-old document on various people, disciplines and industries in 2022. .
Previous stories in this series include: How Colorado’s Water History Shapes Snow Science and Why Western River Compacts Were Innovative in the 1920s But Couldn’t Foresee Snow’s Challenges water today.
One hundred and fifty-two years ago, the first buildings of the Colorado Agricultural College stood among the sagebrush and prairie grasses. As the campus grew, its center was set in a green meadow surrounded by elm trees, a space now known as the iconic oval.
Today, Colorado State University’s green spaces are woven into the tapestry of campus life – from intramural fields to Monfort Quad, they serve as informal parks for students and faculty to revel in the beauty of Front Tidy.
A western campus shaped by urban ideals
These spaces testify to the greater power of the designed landscape in American life. Popularized by the public parks movement and suburban landscaping of Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1800s, large green public spaces provided serene outdoor recreation in cities after the Industrial Revolution.
“The democratic nature of the wide open spaces on the east coast was brought with people as they moved west,” said Lori Catalano, professor of landscape architecture at CSU. “It was a way of creating central green spaces that were shared, but plants and ideas migrated from a humid climate in the east to the semi-arid climate in the west.”
As a growing land-grant institution, CSU’s embrace of green aesthetics instilled the idea of parks as public spaces accessible to all.
Although the Ring’s first elms were planted in 1881, it was not until 1919 that it became the center of campus, soon after the Fort Collins City Park was established. These spaces showed how far green spaces had spread from their rich urban roots and democratized access to parks in northern Colorado.
“As humans, plants and animals moved west, they changed the landscape,” Catalano said. “Alfred Crosby’s concept of ecological imperialism helps explain how emigrants moved west with a variety of diseases, plants and animals co-creating an environment that reinforced the presence of open grassy fields with trees.”
After World War II, green spaces were embraced in front lawns by middle-class residents seeking a taste of luxury. CSU’s green aesthetic has blossomed as it has grown. Spaces like the Quad Monfort, the Champs intramuros and the Lagon complemented the new architecture while creating new outdoor spaces for students between classes.
Green oases in the meadow
“Traditionally on campuses, buildings are grouped together to create a series of outdoor rooms,” Catalano said. “Aesthetically, people and students expect large expanses of green lawns with trees – they don’t expect it to look like a meadow.”
In the American West, these verdant landscapes perpetuate and signal the continuing legacy of centuries-old ecological imperialism, yet they contrast with the naturally dry, beige prairies of the region. CSU’s green spaces remain a central part of its identity and help unify landscapes without sacrificing flexibility and sustainability — essential for a campus that has thousands of students crossing its grounds during the school year.
“University campuses are used a lot as parks and need a flexible and durable surface,” Catalano said. “The grass is very durable because it can tolerate students walking on it, (playing) Frisbees, picnicking, whereas our native grasses which require less water cannot tolerate that level of compaction.”
Lawns are also easier to maintain than native plants – just mow, fertilize and water. But across the American West, green lawns contrast with dry, semi-arid landscapes and may not survive a resource-scarce future.
“If the campus reflected the natural landscape of Fort Collins, we would see meadows with cottonwoods and peach-leaved willows along the waterways,” Catalano said. “Visually, lawns have cultural power. They look good, they are green… that’s what we know and what makes us comfortable.
What will tomorrow’s green spaces look like?
With an unprecedented mega-drought in the Colorado River Basin, some states have challenged the ubiquity of green lawns.
In Las Vegas, authorities began paying people to remove their irrigated lawns in the 1980s, and the program was largely successful in reducing residential water use. As of 2021, all “non-functional” lawns are banned in Las Vegas to conserve water, reflecting how stretched Nevada’s low water allocation from the Colorado River is already.
In Colorado, House Bill 22-1151, which was signed into law last April, requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create a statewide program with $2 million in funding to encourage the replacement of grass by “ecological” landscaping.
But, according to Catalano, changing the way people understand and perceive the landscape can be daunting.
“It takes a lot of willpower and intention to commit to changing the landscape,” she said. “We could incentivize it, but the challenge is that the price of water is relatively cheap – it takes someone who is passionate and intentional to be attracted to incentives, because there is no financial gain huge. It’s a bit like solar power – we all want it, but how much are we willing to pay for it? »
Limiting water use by altering landscape aesthetics will be necessary to ensure the long-term health of the Colorado River Basin.
In June, the U.S. government said the basin must reduce its water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet or risk federal intervention. Meanwhile, CSU researchers have discovered that most of the waterways running through Denver’s park system only exist because of sprinkler runoff. Reducing water consumption by limiting green lawns could then be effective.
Although CSU’s campus design now seems set in stone, its history reflects a century of cultural change that has cultivated tree-lined avenues, sprawling fields and verdant quads. A long scream of Old Main set atop rolling plains, the future of these unifying spaces will be influenced by the state of the Colorado River Basin and impending water shortages.
“Landscapes are often invisible, undervalued and misunderstood. When people cannot see or understand the processes and systems involved in creating and maintaining landscapes, it is difficult for them to appreciate change,” she said. “When we start to see and value alternative landscapes that require less water, there is an opportunity to reduce the dominance of lawns.”