Humans of the U: Myron Willson

Janelle Hanson, managing editor, University of Utah Communications June 14, 2019

“I’m retiring as the deputy chief sustainability officer after being on campus for 10 years. I’ve seen a lot of change over the past decade. There’s a lot more support for sustainability efforts across campus.

In my former career as an architect and planner—plus trained in California in the 70s—the environment was always a component of my work. Realizing that the people in the buildings had far more of an impact over the building’s life than the building itself, I started getting interested in human behavior, which turned to looking at how those people got to the building and their commute patterns.

I was also an adjunct in the College of Architecture teaching design. I started volunteering and helped a student who wanted to add LEED requirements to all university buildings. And then I ended up leaving architecture to be more involved in the broader picture for campus.

In my mind sustainability is the poster child for One U. It cuts across all aspects of the university—from health care to Research Park and Commuter Services to Student Affairs. One thing I’ve really enjoyed being a part of was helping to rework the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, which had some barriers. It took us four or five years working with administration on a structure that would make it a truly revolving loan fund. Now, it’s approaching $500,000 to be invested in sustainability efforts and will continue to grow long after we’re all gone.

Sustainability is a collaborative effort. I’ve loved working with people to create solutions. There is a need and always a place for everybody at the table to get involved because some of our poor and more vulnerable communities are the ones most impacted by the decisions that the rest of us make.

After retirement, I’m going to travel a bit, but I will still be involved locally with sustainability efforts through a nonprofit called Heal Utah and get more involved with pedestrian and bicycle safety.”

—Myron Willson, deputy chief sustainability officer, Sustainability Office

Campus is abuzz with innovation

Imagine a smoldering late-August day on campus. The pavement radiates heat and you struggle to find a place to take cover from the sun. The walk from the Union to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts seems unbearable and you wonder what will come first: The museum doors or your body in a puddle on the walkway. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see an oasis: a tree, shrubs, greenery. The space is alive with color and movement. And behold—a rock to sit on. You take the scene in.

It does not take long for you to realize that you are not the only creature taking refuge in this assemblage of habitats. Bees buzz around you, busy transferring pollen from flower to flower. Birds and insects swoop in and out. There are even a few other humans enjoying the space.  A growing community of plants, pollinators and Utahns.

This unique space is the result of an innovative student-led project funded through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). SCIF is the university’s green grants program managed by the Sustainability Office that provides an opportunity for students, faculty and staff from all disciplines and departments to propose projects that enhance the sustainability of our campus and community. The College of Architecture + Planning and Facilities Management also contributed funds to the $11,850 project.

In spring 2018, a joint team of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students from multiple departments on campus including planning, engineering and biology submitted a proposal to replace turf adjacent to the architecture building with green infrastructure and a pollinator garden. There had been flooding issues in heavy rainstorms as runoff came off the sidewalk, down the slope and into the basement level of the architecture building. So, the team proposed constructing a form of stormwater green infrastructure called a bioswale to better manage this runoff. Green infrastructure is an approach to stormwater management that imitates the natural water system on the landscape; it captures runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and rooftops and directs it into the ground where it is filtered by soil and plant roots that take up some of the water and pollutants. Under the surface of the garden now is an 8-foot-deep trench filled with sand that allows water to soak quickly into the ground while filtering pollutants. On the surface is a rock-lined swale that slows the flow of water and directs it into the ground and away from the building.

In addition to mitigating flooding and improving water quality, a primary goal of this project was to transform the irrigation-intensive turf grass lawn in front of the architecture building into an ecologically and socially functional and attractive outdoor space by reducing water use, increasing biodiversity, creating habitat for wild pollinators and a beautiful retreat for humans. Water-wise native plants reduce irrigation needs while still providing benefit to humans and other species alike. This type of landscaping helps the university meet its goals of achieving water neutrality by 2020 and reducing stormwater runoff by 75% in the next 10 years.

A central component of the garden is its role in attracting and supporting a wide diversity of pollinators. Pollinators play a critical role in our ecosystem. They are an important part of plant reproduction with over 80% of flowering plants requiring a pollinator. This has direct impacts both on natural ecosystems and on agricultural production. One-third of all the food we eat, including some of the most delicious and healthy items like most fruits, nuts and vegetables, are the result of successful pollination. Unsurprisingly, pollinators are also responsible for the reproduction of many plants that provide food and habitat for wildlife. Yet, pollinator populations are in rapid decline as a result of multiple factors–especially habitat destruction. This garden counters that trend by providing a habitat haven for these important ecosystem players. Bees are the most common pollinator, and Utah is home to over 1500 native species.

The garden will also attract the three hummingbird species that commonly live in or migrate through Utah: broad-tailed, black-chinned and rufous hummingbirds. As a result, garden visitors will be able to partake in the enriching and connective experience of hummingbird viewing.

Together, the Green Infrastructure and Pollinator Garden will be a step toward the university’s master plan vision of smart open space, intelligent landscaping and water neutrality. It also provides a point of reference and education for students to see how sustainable systems like this work, it will serve as a living lab helping students convert sustainability principles learned in class into practice.

In honor of Pollinator Week (June 17-23), treat yourself to a walk in the Green Infrastructure and Pollinator Garden to relax, unwind and appreciate the buzzing life around you.


This article was originally published in @theu. The content was condensed from the original SCIF proposal submitted by: Sarah Hinners, Faculty (City + Metropolitan Planning), Amy Sibul, Faculty (Biology), Quaid Harding (Undergraduate Biology), Nick Kiahtipes (Undergraduate Urban Ecology), Amanda Dillon (Masters City + Metropolitan Planning, Real Estate Development), Nannette Larsen (Masters City + Metropolitan Planning), Debolina Banerjee (PhD Candidate City + Metropolitan Planning), Sue Pope (Campus Facilities) and Mason Kriedler (PhD Civil + Environmental Engineering).