What’s that green thing on top of Georgia State Stadium?

Photo by Jerell Rushin | The Signal

Sanford Stadium on the University of Georgia campus has its hedges. Georgia State Stadium on Georgia State’s campus has a garden sprouting on its rooftop.

The Panthers play in one of college football’s leading stadiums in environmental sustainability. The year-old stadium made Georgia State one of three finalists for the United States Gypsum Corporation (USG) NACDA Sustainability Award, given by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USG.

The award is given to universities who incorporate “sustainable practices and materials into their athletics facilities.” Georgia State did not win the award but still received $10,000 in USG merchandise to put towards athletic and academic buildings.

One of Georgia State’s student organizations, the Student Environmental Team (SET), is building the garden and has optimistic goals for the future. SET member Gina Sheridan said the club will use the garden to provide educational opportunities for students and the Georgia State Athletics staff. It will engage the community by letting them grow in the garden, providing them the opportunity to improve their agricultural literacy.

“It could allow people who work in this building to have their own part of the garden if they’re interested in that,” Sheridan said. “It could possibly inspire them to take more sustainable approaches to their building as well and perhaps recycle more, compost food waste more. Anything like that to get them thinking more.”

The garden isn’t bustling like New York City’s streets on a Monday morning yet, but Sheridan said having a garden space has been a goal of SET’s for more than four years. SET finally broke through in 2018, and though it was a strenuous, it was well worth the wait. Sheridan expects to start growing this fall.

“It involved a lot of going from person to person and finding out where’s a good space for us, who’s in charge of this space,” Jessica Jones, acting SET president in 2017, said. “Then after that, we petitioned with the Office of Sustainability and whoever would listen as to why we should have this space and what we would do with it.”

Mario Cambardella, urban agriculture director of the City of Atlanta’s Mayor’s Office of Resilience, met with SET on the past three Wednesdays. He provided the organization with free consulting to help them plan a successful blueprint and think through logistical problems that could arise. Cambardella previously worked on the Woodruff Arts Center’s green rooftop.

The downtown location of Georgia State’s campus made finding a space challenging. Georgia State doesn’t have the green spaces that a traditional college campus has. The stadium sprouted up at the perfect time and provided SET an ideal location to build a garden.

Manager of Sustainability Initiatives Jenni Asman worked hand-in-hand with SET to help it find the right place. Sheridan said the office genuinely wants to see SET succeed. One day, Asman suggested SET look into gardening at the stadium, and SET ran with the idea.

“This is the only [possible garden] space that’s truly owned by Georgia State,” Sheridan said. “Being a urban campus, there’s not a fine line between what is the city of Atlanta and what is Georgia State University.

“So this is a place that we know Georgia State is going to own for a while, and there is a lot of security in that … We thought about putting it on the rooftop of certain buildings [on campus], but that is also a safety hazard and we didn’t know how long that would sustain.”

Georgia State Athletics was proactive in using the stadium to help the university be sustainable immediately after the school purchased Turner Field. Athletics requested to lend a hand in the university’s environmental initiatives.

The university’s recycling center is located inside the stadium. It includes an expanded polystyrene densifier, a machine that reduces styrofoam scraps to “1/90th of their original size,” according to the Georgia State University Magazine, and it makes Georgia State one of just three universities to have a densifier.

For the 2017 fiscal year, the athletics program received $11,250 for recycling and composting efforts at the stadium and GSU Sports Arena.

“Athletics reached out to us as soon as GSU acquired the stadium,” Asman said. “They wanted assistance in creating a more eco-conscious waste plan for stadium events.”

“Sustainability Initiatives was very excited about this as it’s relatively rare for collegiate athletic departments to work so closely with sustainability departments,” said Asman. She said they saw great opportunity in reducing waste and incorporating student learning in the joint effort.

On home football game days, “Trash Talkers” advise fans to place their trash in the proper bins inside the stadium and at tailgating areas. Trash Talker and freshman Elijah Stephens said he needed volunteer hours for his new student orientation class, but he views it as an opportunity rather than a chore.

“You tell them [fans] what you can recycle and what you can’t … I don’t mind because I think I have a environmental mind, so I’m conscious of global warming,” Stephens said. “I just like to help out. I think it’s fun.”

Environmental scientists believe that people have the power to change trends if they act together. Getting the younger generation involved and invested in battling environmental issues is important because the issues will be theirs to handle in decades to come.

“I think having students volunteer at events such as the football games and the zero waste basketball game that is hosted during recyclemania, really raises awareness around the fact that people can always act in a more eco-conscious way, no matter where you are,” Asman said.

“It also gives students a behind the scenes view on how wasteful typical sporting events can be and the damage that does to the environment as well as the university’s bottom line,” Asman said. “Typically, after volunteering, students feel much more empowered to spread the word to their peers on the importance of certain environmentally friendly behaviors such as recycling, which in the end, elevating that awareness makes an even larger impact.”

By deciding not to build a new stadium, the university saved $20 million, according to a press release from Sustainability Initiatives. Georgia State Stadium is essentially Turner Field with about 30,000 fewer seats.

“We were extremely pleased that we were able to transform a stadium for a third time and convert Turner Field into Georgia State Stadium,” Patrick Hatcher, assistant athletic director for facilities and operations, said in the press release.

“When we first viewed the property, we knew we could reuse, recycle and make the stadium more efficient in so many ways, just like they had when the stadium was built for the Olympics in 1996,” Hatcher said. “Although the first stages of the transformation are complete, we will continue to look for ways to repurpose the iconic stadium for years to come.”

Before SET took control of the garden space, it was where marble rock, overgrown weeds and peeling paint stood. The Atlanta Braves’ miniature path where children could run the bases occupied the area before they moved to SunTrust Park.

Next to the garden is an amphitheater where environmental groups in Atlanta can visit and speak to students during SET general body meetings.

SET expects a lot of trial and error because it doesn’t have experience doing anything like this, but they want to leave a legacy so future SET members can serve the Panthers for years to come.

“We have really good intentions,” Sheridan said. “We really want to make something that we’re proud of so that way it can be beneficial to students and faculty. It’s something that’s never been done at this school before, so we really are proud to be taking on this project.”