One of Marc Carlson’s favorite spots on Northeastern’s Boston campus is the bioswale outside of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. The cleverly disguised water runoff channel is filled with marsh plants that can be enjoyed from the adjacent outdoor seating. The only downside can be the traffic noise on nearby Columbus Avenue, says Carlson, a third-year student studying environmental science and landscape architecture at Northeastern.
So he also treasures the koi pond outside the Curry Student Center—a quiet place that Carlson says feels far removed from the bustling city around it. Another go-to spot is Richardson Plaza, where a small grove of birch trees pops through the concrete.
Carlson knows every nook and cranny of the grounds from walking them day in and day out as part of his co-op at the arboretum. The Boston campus was designated an arboretum in 2019, making it the only university in the city with an arboretum on its campus.
“I’m just learning so much,” Carlson says. “There’s always something new to learn.”
He works for Chuck Doughty, who oversees the university’s landscaping. The pair starts each week by walking the campus to survey which of the arboretum’s 1,400 trees and roughly 120 different plant species are flourishing, and which may need a little TLC. Walking around with Doughty is an education unto itself, Carlson says.
“It’s just a really special time,” he says. “Chuck has so much to share, and there’s so much I can absorb. The more time I spend with him, the more I learn.”
In addition to the weekly survey, Carlson is responsible for keeping the arboretum’s plant inventory up to date in an online database called IrisBG. Carlson enters health, age, and location data, as well as photos of every plant on campus. He keeps the running list updated as species come and go with the changing seasons and landscape.
Soon, he’ll start tagging all the trees on campus with a credit card-sized metal plaque that contains each tree’s scientific name, common name, family, age, and location in the arboretum.
“It’s cool to brag about the plants in our arboretum,” he says with a laugh.
Carlson says he’s always had an interest in plants. His family has kept a garden for as long as he can remember, and his first job was on an organic vegetable farm, weeding rows of produce and harvesting vegetables.
At Northeastern, he’s studying to become a landscape architect—a field that “will only become more important as cities become more sustainable,” Carlson says.
“It’s such a relaxed and calm field, and there’s so much complexity and beauty mixed in,” he says. “You can incorporate design, horticulture, aesthetics, biodiversity and ecology, architecture, all at once. It’s about bringing the natural world into human and urban areas.”
And bringing nature to urban spaces has become increasingly important, as people opt to gather outside in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Carlson has helped the Facilities Division adapt the campus’s outdoor space to accommodate the influx of students who are using it—tripling the number of Adirondack chairs scattered across its 11.5 acres, and adding roughly four times the seating to Richardson Plaza—as well as to create space for staging tents outside the university’s testing centers.
“You wouldn’t necessarily think of it, but the hardscape is a big part of the landscape,” Carlson says, “and there’s been a lot of change and a lot of flux to the landscape during the pandemic.”