Sustainable Landscapes in the Built Environment

Emerging Cross-Disciplinary Collaborative in Sustainable Landscapes

Multidisciplinary scholarship over the last several decades has helped uncover key insights into sustainability from a variety of perspectives. Two of the most visible areas have been ecosystem sustainability and the sustainability of food production, but contributions have been made in a variety of areas including energy production and urban development. Most of these initiatives have been cross-disciplinary, and most have also included contributions from biological, physical, and social scientists.

UW Madison Campus

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus

Among the most pressing needs for society in the 21st century is the development and maintenance of sustainable landscapes where humans live, work, and recreate. Such landscapes have the potential to promote conservation of natural resources, improve carbon sequestration, enhance human wellbeing, restore habitats, and advance economic benefits for society. The American Society of Landscape Architects has described such landscapes as contributing to the health of our communities. For more information on sustainable design concepts, please see their website

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is uniquely positioned to contribute to the rapidly developing area of sustainable landscapes through collaborations across a broad range of disciplines, programs, schools, and colleges. This initiative, called Sustainable Landscapes in the Built Environment (SLBE), brings together expertise across our campus to examine questions and opportunities in sustainable landscape design, implementation, maintenance, and impact.

image urban ag

To foster dialogue in this area, a special one-day workshop on Sustainable Landscapes in the Built Environment was held at the UW Arboretum on October 16, 2015. A group of faculty and staff from the Nelson Institute, Graduate School, and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences have identified an emerging interest in the theme of sustainable landscapes across many disciplines at UW-Madison. Scholarship, design, and practical programming in many aspects of sustainable landscapes is already in progress,including projects that connect public health, sustainable cities, urban planning, landscape and garden design, water and nutrient management, and many other disciplines. Our workshop brought together ideas that might result in courses, grant proposals, innovative programs,  development and fundraising opportunities, faculty clusters, and new projects.

An aerial view from a helicopter highlights UW-Madison's Allen Centennial Gardens and the historic Agricultural Dean's Residence during a sunny autumn day on Oct. 7, 2006. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 10/06 File#: D200 digital camera frame 3729

Allen Centennial Garden (Right) and UW Arboretum (Below)

The UW Arboretum's Visitor Center (formerly called the McKay Center) is pictured in an aerial view of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during an autumn sunset on Oct. 5, 2011. From foreground to horizon are Curtis Prairie, Longnecker Gardens, Lake Wingra, and the UW-Madison campus and downtown Madison skyline. The photograph was made from a helicopter looking northeast. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)


Workshop Details



Strengths of the UW Madison SLBE Initiative

  • Faculty strengths in a variety of areas that can contribute to this initiative
  • A diverse campus landscape with a conducive geography offers opportunities for collaborative projects; there is substantial diversity of our built environments & spaces (university/city, etc.)
  • Locations such as Lot 34, wich is part of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, may present opportunities for collaborative projects
  • There are several unique locations where work can be accomplished, including the Allen Centennial Garden, the Arboretum, etc.
  • A diverse knowledge base, including biological, physical, and social science perspectives and expertise, exists on our campus, leading to a multi-disciplinary perspective on sustainability
  • There is tremendous expertise in restoration ecology on our campus
  • There is a legacy of innovative land and resource stewardship on our campus
  • The UW Madison campus is know for very low barriers to collaboration
  • The campus has substantial public health expertise

Opportunities and Strategies for the UW Madison SLBE Initiative

  • Create a center or program focusing on urban horticulture
  • Create a cross-departmental degree program in SLBE
  • Make better use of our campus as a laboratory for SLBE exploration
  • Investigate new public/private partnerships
  • Identify new grant opportunities for SLBE collaborations
  • Use NSF mechanism for funding complex system science proposals
  • Establish regular interaction opportunities for SLBE-oriented scientists
  • Establish regular interaction with public health professionals and more fully engage with human health disciplines on campus
  • New courses and curriculum development that focuses on SLBE objectives

Next Steps

  • Host a larger workshop with external partners
    • Goal of the workshop can be identification of key issues
    • Include economists and business expertise
    • Identify funding
    • Specifically explore cross-campus living laboratories and centers/institutes in the SLBE space
  • Jointly offer to teach SLBE workshop or courses in the summer
  • Develop FIGs or Capstone courses in SLBE area


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  • #learninginthelandscape