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Urban Cowboy: No playing games — this campus gets top marks for beauty

Research shows that the university scenery makes a difference in attracting prospective students
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Students everywhere get accused of walking about with their eyes glued to their cell phone screens . . . which in some cases is warranted criticism, owing to how Pokemon Go has become so ingrained in our culture lately.

But at the University of Guelph, at least 10,000 prospective students — the number who take part each year in the University of Guelph guided campus tours — aren’t playing games, at least not during the tour (despite the fact the university has 60 Pokemon Go stops). Research shows they’re checking out the scenery, and it’s making a difference in their plans for the fall.

The university admissions office coordinates the two-hour campus tours. It says correspondence with students during and after recruitment reveals that the overwhelming majority of tour participants credit the beauty of the campus for significantly influencing their ultimate decision to enroll here.

Results of a self-guided visitor survey from the grounds department, the group responsible for planting and maintaining the campus gardens, likewise shows a positive response to the look of the campus.

It all points to a clear fact: at the university, everyone has an important role in recruitment and in presenting a positive image.

Gardens story - Michelle Seaton, Sydney Pearce, Alaina Osborne, Sameer ChhabraMichelle Seaton of the University of Guelph campus tour program visits with students Sydney Pearce, Alaina Osborne and Sameer Chhabra Photo courtesy of Joanne Pearce.

“Students come to campus to check out a specific program, and tell us that once they go on a campus tour, they know the University of Guelph is the place for them,” says Michelle Seaton, assistant manager of the campus visit program. “The campus's beauty and abundant green space is a huge factor in creating a memorable first impression for visitors. It contributes to that feeling of belonging, the feeling of being comfortable and at home here. A beautiful campus is important in student recruitment.”

Indeed, Guelph’s reputation among Canadian universities as an exceptionally gorgeous campus — its historic buildings, its grounds, its arboretum — is well known. That standing is based in no small part on its rich history of teaching, research and knowledge mobilization in disciplines that have helped make it Canada’s Food University — agriculture, horticulture, botany and landscape architecture, to name a few.

The centrally located conservatory gardens, where many visitors get their first impression of the university, have increasingly become an aesthetic centerpiece in the past few years. The conservatory greenhouse and pond next to the University Centre were developed with alumni support and enhanced for the university’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

Gardens story - Letitia Uwamahoro and Carlos PobleteLetitia Uwamahoro and Carlos Poblete are part of a crew that planted 10,000 flowers in the University of Guelph conservatory gardens this spring and summer. Photo courtesy of Joanne Pearce.

This spring and summer, the grounds crew, under the guidance of conservatory gardens gardener Nick Colley-Lussier, have planted 10,000 annuals and perennials there, and it looks spectacular. The plantings include 2,000 cone-shaped celosia (cockscomb), all secured from Guelph’s municipal nursery, sporting mostly U of G red-and-gold colours.

Gardens story - Riley LeeuwenburgRiley Leeuwenburg tends to the gardens in front of the University of Guelph conservatory. Photo courtesy of Joanne Pearce.

The many splashes of colour and plant and tree varieties in the conservatory gardens are part of a drive towards what grounds manager and avid horticulturalist John Reinhart — who heads the staff of 16 full-time groundskeepers and 24 students -- calls an effort to “make it funky.” The crew members have spent the last 18 months or so building the garden’s botanical base; now, they’re stretching out with some tasteful offbeat, out-of-the-ordinary offerings: unusual trees such as a dawn redwood, an osage orange and a fringe tree, and flowers, including castorbeans, various coneflowers and large-flowered hibiscus.  

Plans are well underway for next year, with new plantings that will recognize Canada’s 150th birthday. Reinhart is trying to have this aspect of the conservatory gardens complete in time for Alumni Weekend, including signage and botanical and common identification for all the plant species.

Three years ago, with Reinhart in the lead, the University of Guelph won top place as best urban university grounds from the international Professional Ground Management Society. He has his eye on the prize again.

Says Reinhart: “We’re committed to making, and keeping, these grounds beautiful.”