Growing Green Inside the Union

Described as biophilic design, biotecture, vertical gardens, or living walls, they can all be lumped together as pro-mental health infrastructure designed to promote the positive links between green spaces and public health. Thanks to technology, these landscapes are being installed more frequently inside buildings, not just on roofs or in outdoor spaces, and student union atriums and open spaces have become perfect venues. 

Research has shown that even a few office plants offer more benefits than just making the workspace look nice. They reduce airborne molds and bacteria, harmful elements like benzene, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, in addition to reducing stress, enhancing creativity, and improving well-being. On the grandest scale, bringing the green indoors is recognized as a cost-effective public health intervention. 

Inside unions at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, the University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, and Gonzaga University are greens, herbs, and vegetables maturing thanks to indoor hydroponic growing displays. 

However, indoor plants don’t have to be permanent, as the Perkins Student Center at the University of Delaware proved last year with a unique week-long pop-up garden that highlighted a rare estuarian ecosystem found in Delaware called the Delmarva Bays. Working together, students from the landscape architecture program and the division of student life created a living bio-exhibit in the west lounge of the student center, complete with flowing water, living plants, and a walkway and path to enjoy it all on. Modeled after an exhibit that landscape architecture students would later erect at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the pop-up garden provided an opportunity to hold a reception, offer a lecture, and celebrate with a modern dance performance by Delaware students that was themed on the exhibit. 

Just like the Perkins Center pop-up garden, it took only a start-up grant—in this case $15,000 from the University of Maryland Sustainability Fund—to have a 240-square-foot vertical green wall installed in the Adele H. Stamp Student Union–Center for Student Life. Located on a ground-floor indoor patio area, the vertical green wall is LED-lit and incorporates both edible plants and herbs, along with common indoor plants like philodendrons, begonias, and anthuriums. And just like the Perkin’s pop-up garden, it too was the result of a collaboration between student life and landscape architecture students and professionals. At Maryland, the landscape architecture undergraduate program chair challenged students to design a project to make the space in the Stamp Union more inviting, and the resulting design won the sustainability grant. 

There’s outside help as well, as in private partnerships. At Gonzaga University the recently renovated Hemmingson Student Center is connected with a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse managed by a Sodexo-led dining sustainability team, which provides hands-on experience to student employees and volunteers, in addition to offering tours to area elementary, middle, and high school students. At the University of Alaska–Anchorage Student Union, the locally based agricultural technology company VH Hydroponics has had indoor hydroponic growing cabinets generating produce for over a year now. After harvest, it is delivered to the Daily Den, a union program offering free food and beverages to students twice each day. 

There’s aquaponics as well, a closed-loop food production system where plants and fish are grown together. At North Carolina State, the student organization Recirculating Farms Club worked with university student centers and dining to have an 800-gallon aquaponics tank installed on the main floor of Talley Student Union between the Talley Marketplace and the union food court.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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