by Paul da Silva

When most people think of public lands in Marin, they first remember the national and state parks, the county parks and open space preserves, and the lands of the Marin Municipal Water District. However, there are other public agencies in Marin that manage sizable portions of land. One of these is the Marin Community College District.

The College of Marin (COM) was established at Kentfield in 1926 on land donated by the same William Kent who made the gift of what is now Muir Woods. This was originally oak woodland and some riparian land along the banks of Corte Madera Creek. Many years later, the district purchased land for the new Indian Valley College (IVC) southwest of Novato. This was a much larger parcel of oak woodland, mixed forest and some chaparral, with Ignacio Creek running through it. The new campus opened in 1974.

As the two campuses developed, some plants were removed, and others were added. By 1964, the Kentfield campus had at least 300 taxa of woody species alone. The majority were exotic, but there was also a substantial group of natives. Some of these, such as giant sequoia, originated elsewhere in California, but significant individuals remained of the original flora. These included coast live oak, valley oak, box elder, ash, bay and buckeye. Fewer new plantings were made at IVC. These included both natives and exotics, but the building and planting affected only the campus core, leaving intact native vegetation surrounding it.

Over the years, much educational use was made of plants on both campuses. However, there had never been a co-ordinated effort to plan for improved educational or ecological function of the landscapes. This was beginning to be seen as a major problem at schools and colleges worldwide. As two environmental educators put it:

“Ideally, our educational institutions need physical makeovers. Spending   every day in schools that architecturally isolate students from nature by their very design is a powerful object lesson, regardless of what is being taught inside the walls.  It is hard for students to make relevant connections to natural processes when they sit inside air-conditioned rooms that open on asphalt playgrounds or groomed lawns with concrete walkways.”  (Saylan and Blumenstein (2011). The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It).

Fortunately at COM, faculty and staff members little by little developed informal partnerships that resulted in the acquisition, planting and maintenance of many species that were especially useful in education, including environmental education. Finally In 2015, a group of faculty, staff and community members, including several from Marin CNPS, met over a period of several months with one of the architects hired by the new Measure C bond construction program to produce a plan for an ecologically and educationally sensible landscape at the corner of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and College Avenue in Kentfield. This was implemented before the end of the year.

Then in 2019, disaster struck. Suddenly, without any consultation with experienced faculty or staff,  outside contractors radically altered landscapes on both campuses. Taxpayer dollars were used to destroy educational resources and to cause environmental damage. This reversed much of the hard-won progress that had taken so long to achieve.  New English-style lawns were installed, eliminating wildlife habitat and putting native oaks at risk.  Other maladapted exotic species were planted, further wasting water and reducing habitat.  Some exotics were inserted into relatively undisturbed native vegetation. Native plantings were removed, and carefully-constructed compositions were interrupted. In short, the alterations on the campuses were examples of what not to do in modern Marin landscaping.

What not to do in modern Marin landscaping

This provoked protests from within the college and from the larger Marin community. In response, the college administration commissioned a Landscape Master Plan process involving both campuses. An Advisory Committee was formed, and the SWA landscape architect group from Sausalito was hired to prepare the plan. The planning process has not gone smoothly. In part, this is due to COVID-19. However, it is also due to the fact that those in charge of the process do not seem to understand the importance of plants in addressing our twin environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. In fact, until pressed by the Advisory Committee, they had not even thought of doing an inventory of the plants already present on the two campuses.

Currently, the College of Marin Board of Trustees has Public Forums on the Landscape Master Plan scheduled for Wednesday, December 9th, and Thursday, December 10th. This is a wonderful opportunity to show educational leadership in environmental matters. CNPS members who would like to make public comment may do so at the beginning of the meeting, after following the approved procedures.  Details of all Board of Trustees meetings are available on the Marin.edu website under “About COM” and “Board of Trustees” (https://go.boarddocs.com/ca/marin/Board.nsf/Public).  Agendas and instructions for public comment are usually available on the Friday before the meeting.

If you have some specific suggestions for elements of the Landscape Master Plan at the campuses, the landscape architect and planning committee are also having meetings soliciting public input in December. Check MeasureBCOM.org for updates.