A is for Arboretum, not Asphalt

By: John Bock, Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for Sustainability

Within the last month a great deal of attention has focused on the future of the Fullerton Arboretum as the university’s Physical Master Plan is developed. Almost a year ago, the university’s architectural and planning consultants held a public event and conducted an online survey to collect data regarding the campus community’s perceptions and opinions about the future configuration of the campus environment. The results of this exercise are available here. A few findings stand out as especially relevant from my perspective. At the in-person event, the Arboretum was identified as the “most favorite spot” on campus (McCarthy Hall, my campus home, was least favorite) among students, staff, and faculty, and the report emphasizes that “a number of visitors to these posters expressed a strong interest in integrating the arboretum into the curriculum, in providing a more friendly and direct internal access for students, and to removing the perceived barrier between the arboretum and the campus.” The two values that were most shared by both students, and faculty in the survey (nearly 3,000 responses) were “Sustainability” and “Socio­economic Equality.” Students also emphasized “health and wellness” as an important factor in campus design. These responses show that not only does the Arboretum occupy a special status for the CSUF campus community, the Arboretum’s mission and activities exemplify values that are vitally important to its members.

The history of the Arboretum is well-documented  . Although the Arboretum opened 40 years ago, planning began almost ten years prior, led by faculty members from the Department of Biological Science and their families, especially Eugene (Gene) and Teri Jones. As the idea gained traction, ASI and community members were instrumental in raising funds. The area that is now the Arboretum was a diseased orange grove that was scheduled to be demolished for a parking lot, A group called “A is for Arboretum, not Asphalt” organized to promote the alternative, the CSU’s first botanical garden on state land. As we know, eventually the CSU Board of Trustees set aside the 26 acres for the specific purpose of establishing a botanical garden at CSUF.

Over this past forty years, the campus and greater community have developed a deep attachment to the Fullerton Arboretum. The Arboretum is a welcoming environment for our diverse community, including people of all ages, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, financial situations, genders, sexual orientations, and identities formed on other dimensions. I have been able to see the benefits to those with disabilities, whether visible, invisible, developmental, and/or physical, who can visit and utilize the Arboretum as a safe, low stress, judgement-free setting. Over my nearly twenty years as a CSUF faculty member and Fullerton resident, I have had the privilege of seeing my children grow up in the Arboretum, and of being deeply involved in student learning and research there. The Arboretum has grown into a world-class research and educational institution in its own right, each year hosting thousands of local school children, providing support for dozens of research projects on its grounds by students and faculty from CSUF and many other institutions, and supporting many hundreds of CSUF students through service-learning and internship opportunities. One of three arboreta in California to have ArbNet’s top level of accreditation (the others are the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens and the UC Davis Arboretum), it joins 26 others in the United States and the world with this recognition. This includes national botanical gardens in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, as well as only a few other university arboreta at the University of Oxford, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Washington, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Hawaii. We should all be immensely proud of this accomplishment. CSUF has an opportunity to not only maintain the Arboretum at this level, but to bolster this level of excellence. And this, in particular, is why I, for one, find it befuddling that any reduction in the physical portion of the Arboretum directly devoted to green space and in-ground botanical exhibits and research could even be considered.

The Fullerton Arboretum costs approximately $1.25 million per year to operate. The ending of the Joint Powers Agreement with the City of Fullerton in 2020 will result in a loss of about $250,000 or twenty percent of the operating requirements. While a substantial amount of money, it is a small fraction, about six one-hundredths of one percent, or six ten-thousandths, of CSUF’s $437 million annual budget. Even within the budget environment we face I believe that, through concerted effort this budget shortfall could be recovered, and the Arboretum has indicated that they have plans to bridge this gap. Regardless, I find it difficult to accept the loss of the city funding as a compelling argument to do anything to the Arboretum. Changes that may be proposed would, in themselves, be far more expensive. This is not a question of cost but one of values.

In 2011, CSUF became a signatory to the Second Nature Presidents’ Climate Commitment (then the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment) and the Talloires Declaration, both of which signify the university’s commitment to leadership in sustainability. In 2018, CSUF joined the Healthier Campus Initiative, which commits the university to action to improve the wellness of the campus community, including providing a wellness promoting physical environment. Do we represent values consistent with establishing a healthy living and learning environment for our students, being a leader in innovative solutions to transportation challenges, as preservers of the natural world, and being a committed member if the local community? At a time when we face an existential crisis in climate change, I believe it would be appropriate for the university to send a message by investing in this world-class botanical garden, instead of removing green space. With our students facing a mental health crisis of stress, we should be emphasizing the healing effects of experiencing the natural world at the Arboretum. With single occupancy vehicles contributing to most of CSUF’s carbon footprint, perhaps we can invest in creative means to make public transit, bicycling, and walking the preferred options. With the growing recognition of the injustice and environmental costs of food waste, we should invest in expanding the Arboretum’s composting capability. If we want to better integrate the Arboretum into campus, as I have repeatedly heard is a goal, let’s do it by investing in the Arboretum’s expertise and activities that are at the forefront of CSUF’s committed values to sustainability, equality, social justice, and a healthy campus. Let’s not put buildings in areas that are sequestering carbon, preserving biodiversity in this urban environment by providing a home to plants and animals, improving the mental and physical well-being of our campus and greater community, and providing crucial venues for student learning and research. Back in the 1970’s they chanted “A is for Arboretum, not Asphalt” while Joni Mitchell sang “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone—they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot.” As a campus and as a community, let’s commit to and invest in the future of the Fullerton Arboretum.

PDF Link Below to Arboretum Articles

Volume 31-Number 3-Spring 2019

One thought on “A is for Arboretum, not Asphalt

  1. We must save the only place of nature left in Fullerton. Many friends have married there and it is a piece of serenity for those of us fighting to keep it!


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