Smiling man in purple golf shirt.

Tom McLean, Landscape Services

Greening the University of Alberta doesn’t start with adding more greenery to campus, but Landscape Services is doing their part to introduce more sustainable practices into every corner of their portfolio. Tom McLean started in Landscape Services at the entry level, picking up litter and shovelling snow. Now, as the manager, he collaborates extensively with staff in many other departments to meet the university’s sustainability mandate.

What path did you take to get this job?

I was in the golf course business for a long time as a greenskeeper. Golf courses are beautiful places to work. It’s also a private industry, where sustainable practices weren’t put first. We would always spray our dandelions and use synthetic fertilizers to achieve optimum playing conditions. It was very different from here, a public institution where environmental considerations are part of our business.

What was it like coming to UAlberta then?

The university is really good about moving away from stuff like using synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. We’re really trying. I’ve been in this business for a very long time and the changes I’ve seen at the university in the past 8 years—to me it’s unbelievable. We’re just so much more conscious of what we’re doing. I really pride myself that I’m manager of landscape services here because we do so many good things and are constantly looking for new dynamic products and different ways of doing things.

How did this change come about? What was your part in it all?

It has been a huge team effort to make our grounds more sustainable and being part of it from the start has been a huge advantage to me. Coming from the golf industry, I was very new to this sort of thinking. But the more I’ve become familiar with sustainability and the more I’ve learned, the more comfortable I’ve gotten. I certainly can’t take all the credit. I’m just happy to be part of the team. It engages me and keeps me coming back to work.

What’s one of the latest ways that landscaping is becoming more environmentally-friendly?

On the west side of CCIS (the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science) we installed a 25,000 gallon tank in the ground last year. Every summer we test the fire retardant sprinkler systems in the buildings and all that non-potable water has been lost. Now, instead it goes into this huge cistern and we can use it to water the flowers all summer long. They check the fire systems to be sure we’re safe, and then we use the water: it’s a win-win!

We have a tank on South Campus too, at the new Medical Isotope and Cyclotron Facility. Any rain water collected off the building will fill up that cistern, so when we do our watering, some of that will come back to be recycled again—it’s a loop.

Why is it important to you to have a sustainable approach to landscaping?

I’ve got young kids at home and I’d really like to leave them something sustainable at the end of day—if not them, then even more so their children’s children. When we do landscape design on campus, we don’t think five or ten years ahead, we think 25 or 50 years ahead. The trees we choose, the plant material we choose: is it going to last? Will we have to replace it year after year? Working with the Office of Sustainability and with Environmental Management and Sustainable Operations, you learn that you have to look at it from another perspective.

What do you want to accomplish next in terms of campus sustainability?

When we put in a new building I’m brought in at the start to plan the landscaping. So with the upcoming Physical Activity and Wellness (PAW) Centre, I’ll be choosing native plants, drought tolerant plants, things like that. I’m talking about dogwood, silver willow… elms do exceptionally well here. That’s what you see down the bus loop  and most other walking corridors. They create that beautiful canopy. We try to create spaces that will get people outdoors and enjoying the student experience.

How do you think others can get involved in campus sustainability?

Just get out of your office a little bit, don’t be chained to your desk, get out and enjoy our campus. I love when I see people throwing a Frisbee around in the quad, or seeing kids from the daycare out looking at fish in the Humanities pond. You just have to use the space, we have a beautiful campus, you got to get out there and enjoy it. Will that get people caring more about the environment? I think so. If you see a piece of litter you pick it up, and maybe that encourages other people to do the same. A hundred little acts will add up to make the difference for us.


Know any UAlberta students, staff or faculty that should be featured in Faces of Sustainability? Send your suggestions to sustainability@ualberta.ca