Georgia Tech's Award-Winning Campus Landscape

This year, Georgia Tech has been awarded highest recognitions for its carefully manicured natural space and smart performance landscape. The Landscape Services department recently received the Green Star GRAND award in the category of “Urban University Grounds” from the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS). This is the highest-level Green Star award ever received by Georgia Tech from this nationally recognized organization.  

To garner the GRAND award, Georgia Tech demonstrated excellence in maintenance routines, safety, sustainability, and overall beauty. As a bonus, Georgia Tech also received for the first time the 2023 PGMS Sustainability award for taking the lead in implementing sustainable practices — notably, the campus leaf pile, treecycling program, cistern use, and the engineered design of the EcoCommons. 

 “Ultimately, we won these awards based on the hard work the Landscape Services team does throughout the year,” Associate Director of Landscape Services Neil Fuller said. “It was a collaborative I&S effort to compile the award application and I was simply the lucky person who got to represent Georgia Tech at the ceremony.” 

Performance Is Key 

The Georgia Tech campus landscape features manicured turf and flower beds like Tech Lawn and the Noonan Courtyard; flexible, heavy-use green space like Tech Green; and hidden oases like Mayer’s Garden and the backyard of the President’s house, all linked together as part of the 80-acre EcoCommons — which is defined by the topography and drainage patterns of the campus grounds. Working together, these spaces are designed to provide ecological benefits beyond aesthetics. Stormwater management, canopy coverage for cooling, increased biodiversity, and soil moisture capacity are some of the elements that define a performance landscape. Each unique location requires a specific maintenance routine with dedicated teams focused on their care.  

Lawns, greens, and gardens are common on most college campuses. The concept of a performance landscape is not. By design, the EcoCommons mimics the original stormwater paths that existed in the area prior to urbanization and was engineered as part of the landscape master plan to reduce stormwater runoff by 50%. This is achieved in a variety of ways. Several cisterns on campus collect stormwater for irrigation use and infiltration areas allow stormwater to slowly seep back into the groundwater system, avoiding the city of Atlanta sewer system and providing clean water downstream. The EcoCommons was also intentionally designed to be a successional landscape which Georgia Tech will manage and allow to transition to an upland forest and woodland. This transition requires a unique maintenance approach. 

Is It Overgrown? 

In short, no. The area features thousands of native plants and trees that assist with stormwater runoff while providing a natural habitat for native pollinators and birds. The EcoCommons was never meant to stay tidy, pristine, and definitive, but rather grow as nature intended. Unlike the rest of campus, when trees or shrubs are pruned in the EcoCommons, the clippings are simply blown back into the landscape to decompose and naturally enrich the soil. Fallen sticks or trees, unless diseased or considered a safety hazard, are left in place to create bird perches or wildlife habitats. The thousands of installed native plants were meant to have limited intervention creating a densely rich ecosystem. The plant material grows, and when surrounded by a healthy environment, they flourish and may be mistaken as overgrown. However, this performance landscape is performing exactly as expected.  

“There is a learning curve that we will continue to master over time to evolve sustainable methods of maintaining this active landscape in our urban environment,” Fuller said. 

The Recognition Keeps Coming 

The Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded the EcoCommons a 2023 Merit Award. Additionally, the EcoCommons won the 2023 Jury’s Choice Award for Excellence in Landscape Architecture for General Design from the Society for College and University Planning. These awards recognize Georgia Tech for its willingness to experiment and think creatively about sustainability in the campus environment.  

“As an institution of higher learning, these spaces provide unique opportunities to learn about our environment and the impacts we have on it,” Institute Landscape Architect Jason Gregory said. “As a landscape architect, I find it rewarding to know that Georgia Tech is willing to push the limits on sustainable design and use our varied campus landscape as a living campus opportunity.”