Farms and geo-mapping: staff, students develop sustainability plans

Originally posted in UCLA Today
By Alison Hewitt


The projects Bruins have developed include using more local farms and canneries for cafeteria food to amp up the university’s sustainable food levels, building a tree-mapping database that can track everything from proper watering levels to climate change’s effect on UCLA flora, a “green the Greeks” environmental program and more.

The programs are the latest crop from UCLA’s Education for Sustainable Living Program, through which students can take a class that pairs teams of undergrads with staff stakeholders. Staff work with students’ Action Research Teams (ART) all year, relying on their energy to research and develop programs that may have percolated in the office but lacked the manpower to be realized.

“This program is super-valuable, because a lot of staff have an objective or a plan in mind but not the capacity to carry it out — and that’s where the students come in,” said Rebecca Miller, the sustainability analyst for Housing and Hospitality Services who just a year ago was a student on an ART.

This year, 10 Action Research Teams worked on sustainability projects, and presented the results on Monday, May 23. One researched ways to encourage campus coffee drinkers to choose fair trade coffee. Another worked with staff from UCLA Recreation, finding ways to reduce their utility costs and exchanging plastic plants in the Wooden Center for natural plants. “They not only look better, but naturally purify the air,” said Ricky Bates, a student on the recreation ART.

The sustainable food team worked with Miller and got feedback from the dining halls’ purchasing director, Patricia Reyes. The six-student team — Robin Lee, Ingrid Pfister, Avery Gerber, Jasneet Bains, Sandy Whittenberg and Tony Passantino — created a sustainable food purchasing guide that Reyes can use to change the food the dining halls serve. The ART aims for 20 percent of the dining hall food to be sustainable by 2020.

art food team

“We compiled a list of farms with local and organic options, all within 200 miles,” said Passantino. “There are sources for fruits and vegetables, ranchers for meats, and local processing plants for condiments and canned food.”

Miller plans to meet with Reyes and others from Dining Services in the next few weeks to review the ART’s purchasing guide.

“We’ll look at the profiles to find out what food these farms and processing plants can guarantee, in what quantities, and how to transport it,” Miller said. “Other schools have similar purchasing relationships. We might have to get some of our tomatoes from one farmer and some from another, and it might be more complicated, but we can get all our food within 200 miles.”

Another ART, the tree-mapping team, worked with Rich Ohara, the senior grounds superintendent and landscaper for UCLA’s Facilities Management, to create a crowd-sourced database of the estimated 30,000 trees on campus. The team also worked with Eric Graham from UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, the center that developed the technology behind the mobile app that feeds the tree-mappers’ project. Through the app, people throughout campus can help load the identities and GPS locations of all the trees on campus into the database.

art tree mapping team

Landscaping sees value in a database that would let them map out things like drought-resistant trees to streamline irrigation. The crowd-sourcing aspect encourages users to include information about when species are blooming or dying back, which could fuel studies about how climate change is affecting plant life cycles. Capitol Programs can also put the program to use, both to plan which trees to use with new construction and to quickly map which trees would need replacing based on various construction ideas, said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s sustainability coordinator, who worked with several of the Action Research Teams.

“There’s so many uses for the database,” said Darby Bukowski, one of the students on the project. “It’s become even more applicable than we anticipated.”

With the spatial details, landscape plans can include a deeper analysis, said team member Jacob Drewisch. At times, UCLA trees were planted somewhat randomly, said student Jen So.


“Maintenance costs weren’t taken into consideration, like how big the trees grow and how much water a certain species needs,” So explained.

The tree-mapping ART, which also includes students Dana Trans and Yisi Zhu, hopes public interaction will be encouraged by the game-like nature of the mapping app, Project BudBurst, currently available on Android phones. Users will level-up from sprouts to seedlings to deep-rooted as they tackle challenges to find certain plants while at the same time filling in the database with their finds.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Katz said. “In addition, it will also be an excellent outreach and education tool, to teach people about the local flora.”