Sept. 15, 2020

New Swann Mall landscape replicates Alberta grasslands of the 1900s

Indigenous knowledge woven into natural prairie design

In Latin, the word “campus” dates back to 1774 and means field, plain or level space. Historically, this word described college or university grounds that were beautifully designed to secure the peace and tranquility needed to study. 

Over the past few years, the University of Calgary’s landscape around Swann Mall has been under construction, and orange fencing and dirt piles have become the new norm. As some faculty and staff slowly return to campus this month, you’ll be amazed to see the new sustainable landscape that has been developed, bringing our campus back to its natural grassland and prairie roots, all while helping to address climate change.

“The new Swann Mall landscape may initially appear like an experimental and unconventional, natural grassland in the heart of our campus,” says Jane Ferrabee, UCalgary architect. “But in response to climate change and more specifically environmental resiliency, cities are increasingly using more natural plant material in their public spaces.

"Through frequent conversations with Indigenous Traditional Knowledge Keepers, we have also come to appreciate how re-establishing the prairie will restore the natural habitat with its interdependent life systems. Interestingly, this approach also lightens our reliance on fertilizer and irrigation. It supports snow clearing to areas beside the pathways and removes the need for corrosive salts on the pathways.”

  • Photo above: The new lower courtyard outside Professional Faculties and Murray Fraser Hall. All photos by Jane Ferrabee

Designed by local landscape architects, the Swann Mall landscape rethinks how traditional campus surfaces mitigate extreme weather conditions and transform the identity and cultural landscape of our campus community. As the plantings mature, trembling aspen will line the main walk to the north, offering shade and definition. Prairie grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees create a prairie setting, while sweeping walkways connect building entrances together and form ridges that allow low areas to collect melted snow and rainwater.

Most important, the landscape focuses on ways of being that include intentional inclusion and representation of Indigenous Peoples, perspectives and cultural practices on campus. Traditional Knowledge Keepers continue to share their experience with the university and its consulting teams on the use of edible, medicinal, hardy, pollinating and interdependent plant materials. These conversations are about reintroducing native and resilient Foothills plants to the UCalgary campus which come with the insects, animals, smells and colours native to these areas in the early 1900s.

“Indigenous Peoples have a profound and spiritual connection to the land, and the university is learning about the many conversations about the campus land,” says Michael Hart, vice-provost (Indigenous engagement). “Buildings become part of the landscape, rather than the other way around. Learning from the land while on the land is a powerful acknowledgement of ii’taa’poh’to’p, UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy, and as this landscape changes throughout the seasons, it will support our campus ecosystem of teaching, learning and outdoor research.”

Natural landscape maintenance

The UCalgary grounds team has an important role in this project to address practical issues like region-specific approaches to maintaining the natural landscape. For example, the grass product in the landscape is called NaturesTurf and was initially grown one hour east of Calgary. The longer prairie grass will typically only be cut at the beginning and end of the growing season to allow it to grow to approximately hip height, furthering the natural prairie effect. With the amount of rain Calgary has received this summer, the prairie grass is greener than usual, but will change colour throughout the seasons to resemble the warm natural Alberta colours seen in landscapes such as Nose Hill Park.

The new Swann Mall landscape is the first of two phases, with the second phase concluding in 2022 with the completion of the Block and Link. The second phase includes the north half of Swann Mall, the re-installation of the iconic Prairie Chicken sculpture, as well as the east-west pathway across campus located north of the Block and Link. Questions? Contact sustain@ucalgary.ca.

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.