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Augsburg College looks to transform its campus into an urban arboretum

Even before the first sapling is planted, Augsburg’s campus exceeds the basic arboretum requirement of 25 identified species.

Murphy Square
Courtesy of Augsburg College

You’d never expect to find a leafy arboretum in a high-density, high-diversity, high-traffic neighborhood. But that’s exactly what Augsburg College is planning for its unmistakably urban campus in the heart of Minneapolis, which borders Fairview Riverside Medical complex, the high-rise Riverside Plaza towers, two freeways, two light rail lines, busy shopping districts on Franklin Avenue and Cedar Avenues, plus one of the largest Somali communities outside of Africa.

Clearly this is different from your typical arboretum, which promises escape into untrammeled nature. Still Augsburg’s ambitious idea to transform its entire campus into an arboretum fits the official definition of what an arboretum does: “collect, grow, and display trees, shrubs and other plants for people to study and enjoy, and ideally [is] open to the public for education and inspiration.” That’s the criteria of the Morton Register, which in cooperation with the American Public Gardens Association accredits arboreta throughout the country.

Even before the first sapling is planted, Augsburg’s campus exceeds the basic arboretum requirement of 25 identified species, according to a survey done by two biology students last spring. And it already fulfills the arboretum mission of being a living classroom and green oasis for the public.

“It’s a brilliant idea that the whole campus becomes a learning space,” comments Tom Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center. “We tend to treat the city as if it is different than nature. This is about highlighting ecosystems that are right here.”

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“There’s a disconnect these days between people and plants,” notes Ann Impullitti, an associate professor of biology at Augsburg. She’s excited about her students enjoying easy access to live examples of what’s discussed in class and textbooks. “For this generation, which has grown up in urban areas, to have access to an arboretum would be critical in understanding the importance of biodiversity and urban green space.”

The best way to sense the full potential of this project is to grab a bench on campus and watch the activity. Murphy Square — Minneapolis’s oldest public park, which Augsburg takes care of in partnership with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board — is a hive of activity on a Thursday morning. Students wearing backpacks, professors and staff swinging tote bags, and with a few folks from the neighborhood stroll through en route to classes, offices or meetings.

A jogging couple stops to watch a pair of squirrels chase each other around the grass. A young woman in a hijab types on a laptop. A young man in a baseball cap halts midstride to bask in dappled light streaming through tree branches. A maintenance man walks in rhythm to the jangling of his keys. A young woman in jeans plants herself at the base of a tree and opens a book. A mom lifts her toddler so he can appraise a sculpture across the street in front of the music building. Just as commuters on foot thin out, 15 or so undergraduates flood into Murphy Square, notebooks in hand to sketch what they find for an art class.

This scene is a sneak preview of what Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow envisions for the arboretum, which accompanies a flurry of campus improvements such as construction of the Norman and Evangeline Hagfors Center for Science, Business, and Religion and an updated master plan, which sets forth the vision for a more pedestrian-oriented environment. (The new building itself might be considered part of the arboretum since it features a green roof, paid for in part by a branch of Augsburg student government.)

‘Buildings inside a park’

“A campus is a collection of buildings inside a park,” Pribbenow says, quoting the project’s principal landscape architect, Tom Oslund, founder of Oslund & Associates. “This way of thinking has allowed us to plan differently about how we use our space for educational and community functions, and about our commitment to invite the neighborhood to enjoy it. We can become a destination for elementary school classes to see native species. We can help improve the environment in the neighborhood.”

“The urban arboretum is a prime opportunity for placemaking,” adds Heather Riddle, Augsburg’s vice president for institutional advancement. She foresees a green space where everyone can relax, reflect, rejuvenate and mingle. “A gathering spot that invites students and neighbors to get out of their private spaces and into a shared place.”

“We’re not nostalgic about the past,” Riddle says, noting that an 1872 photo of the campus and aerial shots of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood from the 1920s show almost no trees. “We want to create a new kind of urban neighborhood.”

Oslund, who won accolades for Gold Medal Park downtown, says. “We’re taking a whole different approach, creating a learning laboratory. In a science class, for instance, the subject will be on display all over the campus, rippling out from the classrooms.”

Native Minnesota species

Work is set to begin next year on the first phase of the arboretum, when trees and shrubs are planted around the Hagfors Center on the northwest corner of the campus near Riverside Avenue. Plans call for native Minnesota species such as maple, oak, elm, hickory, plum, crabapple, dogwood, serviceberry and hackberry to surround the building — many of which were recommended by biology faculty.

Eventually, part of 21st Avenue South will become a pedestrian plaza connecting the new building with the existing campus quad. An existing community garden next to the Hagfors Center — where students, staff and West Bank neighbors raise vegetables together — connects the campus to the wider community.

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Outside Augsburg, educators are looking forward to the arboretum. Erica Bentley — science and language arts teacher for 7th- to 9th-graders at the nearby Cedar-Riverside School — can’t wait to bring her classes. “It will be just a 10-minute walk from school. I want to take students there regularly to study the changes that go on throughout the year. When do the trees bud? When do the leaves come out?”

“You’d be amazed how little students in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood get out into nature,” she says, mentioning a field trip to Minnehaha Falls when some of her students suddenly stopped when the walkway shifted from asphalt to bare earth.
Augsburg’s campus

“I’m really excited about green space in the most densely populated neighborhood in the city,” says Mohamed H. Mohamed, a Somali-American social media consultant involved with planning for the arboretum. “Another hope I have is that kids in the neighborhood can explore the Augsburg campus so that they don’t see going to college as a distant thing.”

Brainstorming ideas

A group of Augsburg faculty, staff, alumni, representatives from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, landscape architects from Oslund & Associates and an arborist from Minneapolis Parks & Recreation department have met regularly to draft guiding principles and brainstorm possible ideas for the arboretum, both for the first phase around Hagfors Center and further expansions to come.

Their ideas include:

  • Decorative lighting in the wintertime like Rice Park in St. Paul.
  • A water feature somewhere on campus.
  • Native wildflower gardens, with an emphasis on pollinator-friendly species.
  • Phone app and QR codes to provide background on species, along with informational signage.
  • Attractive entrances and way-finding signs that welcome everyone to visit. “We need to show people this is a place you can go,” says Adrienne Dorn, executive director of the Cedar Cultural Center on the West Bank.
  • Public art.
  • Partnerships with the University of Minnesota arboretum and local municipalities to become a test site for urban forestry.
  • Joining efforts to make the bridge across I-94 to the Seward neighborhood more inviting. Community groups are already suggesting that MnDOT build a parklike land bridge. “Increasing the size of the bridge and adding some landscaping, at least at the entrances, would make it feel not so much like a catwalk in a prison,” remarks biology professor Dale Pederson.
  • The principle of using native species could be taken one step further with distinct parts of the campus planted to reflect Minnesota’s major botanical biomes: prairie oak (oaks, honey locust and wild rose), Northwoods conifer forest (aspen, yew, pine, cedar, spruce, larch fir, juniper, juneberry) and mixed deciduous forest (maple, oak, box elder, black walnut, cottonwood, birch, cherry and many more).

One of the landscape architects on the project, Sandra Rolph, sees the goal of native species — not just trees but shrubs, perennials, raingardens and other plantings — as part of the arboretum’s overall theme of thriving.

“Thriving means a place full of life — not just plants and animals, but people of all ages, races, incomes and lifestyles.”