University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Classroom is Alive

The “Campus Arboretum” project draws attention to the trees, plant communities, and green spaces that give the Twin Cities campus a sense of place.

Most of us picture an arboretum as an enclosed area of carefully tended plants, like the U of M’s Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Gary Johnson aims to change that.

Johnson, a retired professor who taught urban and community forestry at the U of M for 31 years, is heading up an initiative called the Campus Arboretum. The Twin Cities campus—which includes the East Bank, West Bank, and St. Paul—is full of natural beauty, he says, so why not draw attention to the plant communities that give it a sense of place?

“We’re trying to help people understand their surroundings, so they start looking at the campus as more than just a bunch of buildings connected by a bus,” says Johnson.

Starting this summer, a website ( will provide a map and detailed information about 45 sites across the Campus Arboretum, organized into three categories: significant trees, sacred spaces, and special plant communities (see sidebar). Eventually, permanent signage in high-visibility areas of campus will direct visitors to the website to learn more about the varied landscape that makes the U of M so special.

Notable Spots on Campus

The Campus Arboretum highlights campus trees, plants, and landscaps in three categories:


Specific trees that are beautiful, unusual, or historically or culturally significant. 
Example: A huge, sprawling honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos), above, provides both shade and beauty in front of McNeal Hall on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

Groups of plants with educational and recreational value, including rain gardens, bioswales, rooftop gardens, pollinator gardens, and open green spaces.
Example: Near the Law School, a previously unused space has been transformed into an urban meadow that attracts pollinators and helps manage water runoff.

Areas that are special to individuals and communities.
Example: Generations of students have studied and socialized under the stately elms on Northrop Mall, the historic center of the Twin Cities campus on the East Bank. The U of M landcare team chemically treats the trees every other year to prevent Dutch Elm disease and maintain the signature green canopy.

Close to home

The idea for the five-year initiative was born in Johnson’s 2018 class on urban green space management. The project-based class brought together undergraduate seniors in fields like plant science, urban forestry, and landscape architecture with graduate students studying urban planning.

“We thought this would be a great project, because it involves a community that the students are engaged in,” Johnson says. “It’s literally close to home.”

Kylee Gregory, a junior majoring in environmental sciences, says the Campus Arboretum project was more than just a class—it became a personal passion. She cameto the U of M from a small town in southern Illinois, and she says the green spaces on campus made her feel more at home. “Coming from a rural area, I felt like I was still connected to nature here, despite being so close to downtown Minneapolis,” she says.

Gregory helped with marketing for the project, including designing signs to invite people to participate in public meetings. A steering committee—made up of students, faculty, staff, U of M neighbors, and University Landcare, which manages about 11,000 trees on the Twin Cities campus—meets regularly to discuss public input and review the sites chosen for the project.

Refuge and sanctuary

Johnson envisions the project serving as a living classroom for students, faculty, and staff who spend their days on campus. He also hopes it will draw in visitors such as alumni, neighborhood residents, people attending a cultural or athletic event, and prospective students and families.

Patients at the M Health Fairview clinics and hospitals also benefit from campus green spaces, says Erica Timko Olson, who studies nature interventions as an assistant professor at the School of Nursing.

“We need to think about how we can become a place of refuge and sanctuary for people going through traumatic times,” says Timko Olson, a frequent guest speaker in Johnson’s classes. “If a patient has an hour between appointments, do they sit in the lobby or do we encourage them to take a walk down the Mall and notice what’s around them?”

Noticing is key, she says: “Being out in nature is great, but engagement with nature—that intentional connection—that’s where the healing happens.”

Dreams for the future

Intentional connection is exactly what Johnson has in mind for the future of the Campus Arboretum. The current 45 sites are only the beginning, he says. An online nomination form allows anyone to propose other locations, which will be reviewed by the advisory committee.

The project has helped the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus qualify for Tree Campus Higher Education status from the Arbor Day Foundation; it’s one of only three campuses in the state to receive the designation.

But for Johnson, an even greater honor would be to see campus tour guides mentioning the Campus Arboretum as they point out athletic facilities and residence halls. “To me, one of the most wonderful things would be if they talk about a restored prairie on campus, or an out-of-the-way place where you can go to be calm and quiet, or a historically important tree. In a nutshell, we’re celebrating what’s already there.

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