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ASU grounds crew a cut above the rest

Who keeps ASU looking fresh in the dog days of summer? We take a deeper look.
July 5, 2017

Summertime's hot weather presents unique challenges to maintain flora on ASU's diverse campuses

It's a summer Monday morning and Brian Johnson is making his usual rounds. 

The manager of Arizona State University's athletic grounds facilities has already inspected the school's soccer and lacrosse field and noted where some improvements could be made at the football practice facility.

Now he finds himself on the sidelines at Sun Devil Stadium, taking in the football team's skill development workouts. He receives a compliment from defensive coordinator Phil Bennett ("We've got to honor this nice-looking field and play like it.") and asks quarterback Manny Wilkins if the team can stay away from a certain area of the stadium.

The temperature in Tempe on this morning is already 91 degrees. There isn't a cloud in the sky — no protection from the desert sun that would eventually raise the mercury level to the mid-90s by day's end. But this is what locals refer to as a "good" day, one of just three in the month of June where the highs don't crack triple digits. 

Because of the harsh summer sun, special measures have to be taken to protect the fields. Sometimes it's as simple as spraying fungicides to circumvent the potential of disease, but a daily mowing is also required for each field. 

"The Bermuda grass just grows so fast," explained Johnson. "If you miss one day of mowing then it just takes that much longer the next time." 

Whatever Johnson is doing must be working. Sun Devil Athletics has maintained one of the top grounds crews in the country for more than 30 years. 

They are known for eye-catching mow patterns and pristine field conditions, and Johnson has helped prepare the past 20 Super Bowl fields. That number will rise to 21 next February when he returns to his home state of Minnesota to work Super Bowl LII. A member of the Sun Devil grounds crew has been present at the NFL's biggest game since 1996, when it was held at Arizona State's own Sun Devil Stadium. 

"We take a lot of pride in our work," said Johnson, who has been on the crew at ASU for his entire professional career. "I didn't know anything when I started here, though. It was a lot of trial and error, but I got a lot of good advice from some people."

That good advice has led Johnson to the top of his team, which consists of four other full-time employees and three student workers. The students aren't huge fans of the heat but concede that it's a necessary evil that comes with the territory. 

"All things considered, it's an awesome job," said Michael Klakulak, who graduated from ASU in May. "I love being around sports, and this allows me to experience the game atmosphere up close."

When asked about his grounds crew, head football coach Todd Graham is clearly impressed. 

"We enjoy a world-class playing surface at Sun Devil Stadium," Graham said. "Johnson and his crew are so talented, we always know that our student-athletes will have the finest field in the country to play on."

Grounds Services keeps 3 campuses blooming all summer

While the athletics grounds crew manages the university's playing surfaces, the remaining 640 acres on the Tempe campus are maintained by the hard-working group from ASU Grounds Services. They also cater to the Polytechnic and West campuses. 

Jimmy Mastalsz, the grounds supervisor at ASU's Polytechnic campus, said that because of the location's unique desert enviornment, it requires plenty of specialized work during the summer. 

"In addition to the desert landscape, we have over 40 acres of an oasis grass area that we oversee," Mastalsz said. "We start making sure our irrigation system is working properly in May, and because we're putting more water on, a lot of those desert trees like to grow faster. Monsoon season and wind storms are also coming up, and we prepare for that by pruning all of our trees." 

Meanwhile at the West campus, grounds chief Craig Danielson said that its smaller size and location provide some benefits.

"It's much smaller and totally self-contained," he said. "You have virtually no city streets to deal with, and there aren't as many students walking around." 

But no matter the location, these crews also brave high temperatures to keep the campuses looking good throughout the summer.  

"We'll try to take more breaks and stay indoors a little more, but the expectations don't change," said Robert Ferrera, ASU's lead mechanic. 

When not going out on service calls across campus, Ferrera and the department's other mechanic spend their days looking over some of the university's 900 vehicles.

He said that all grounds-crew employees are required to go through a heat stress training, which provides information on what one can do to keep from getting heatstroke. 

So, just how do these guys stay cool?

Taking advantage of shade, when available, is important. So is drinking water (sip, don't swallow) and Gatorade (always orange, Ferrera said).

Rob Vagle, who is now in his fourth year as a groundskeeper with the department's tree crew, likes to wet a bandana to keep his head refreshed. He also wears a light, cool undershirt beneath his standard uniform.

When possible, some members of the team will adjust their hours so they don't have to work in the afternoon sun.

For Ferrera, though, it's all worth it.

"The structure of the university is great because of how much they care about the employees," he said. "I've always compared working at ASU to working at Disneyland. It's just a wonderful place to be." 


Top photo: Athletics ground facilities manager Brian Johnson works on ferti-slicing Frank Kush Field on the morning of June 22. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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ASU initiative helping cities to become more sustainable

ASU researchers are helping cities find ways to 'buy green.'
July 6, 2017

Researchers launch campaign to publicize best practices in 'green purchases'

Convincing consumers to change their behaviors and “buy green” one person at a time is a daunting prospect. But harnessing the huge buying power of America’s cities could be a boon to manufacturers of sustainable goods ... and friendlier to the planet.

A team of Arizona State University researchers launched a project this week aimed at making it easier for cities to “buy green” — at a time when local governments are at the forefront of committing to sustainability.

“Advancing Green Purchasing in Local Governments” is based on a survey of hundreds of government officials that led to eight real-world recommendations for city officials to buy environmentally friendly products, which can include everything from lightbulbs to carpeting. The tips will be disseminated in a marketing blast that will reach thousands of local governments nationwide.

The project is funded by the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, a nonprofit that wanted the ASU team to go far beyond academic research, according to Nicole Darnall, one of the researchers and a professor of management and public policy in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Sustainability. She is also associate director of the Center for Organizational Research and Design at ASU, which houses the Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative team.

“Outreach is a big part of the grant because our funderVillum Kann Rasmussen was a Danish engineer who founded the VELUX window company after World War II. The ASU team also partnered with the International City/County Management Association. wants to change the way local government purchasing works,” she said. The initiative includes a website with the full report and recommendations, as well as a podcast, videos and social-media campaign to get the word out nationwide.

Nicole Darnall

Cities might have sustainability policies, but that doesn’t always translate into “green purchasing” because the buyers might not know about the policy, have enough information on the products or the authority to make a decision. That’s why one of the team’s recommendations is to empower employees and reward them for seeking out green products.

There’s definitely a need for these kind of actionable recommendations, according to Mark Hartman, the city of Phoenix’s chief sustainability officer.

“There can be a lot of missed opportunities,” he said. “Some things are as simple as the stroke of a pen, like having an Energy Star policy for buying any appliance.”

A timely project

The ASU experts had previously researched “eco-labels” and how people use information when buying things.

“Individual consumers’ daily routines are very difficult to change. And you’re changing them one person at a time, which takes time,” said Darnall, who also is a senior sustainability scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

“That brought our team to the concept of large institutional purchasing,” she said, noting that governments in the U.S. account for $1.72 trillion worth of purchases annually. That accounts for 25 to 40 percent of every tax dollar spent, according to the report.

The team sent out more than 1,800 surveys and got responses from 616 officials representing 459 cities. The results looked like this:

• 60 percent had no green purchasing policy
• 28 percent had a green purchasing policy
• 12 percent didn’t know

Of the 170 officials who said they operated under a green purchasing policy, 42 percent said they didn’t believe it was successful.

“It’s a strong statement that directors in local governments would disclose that. They were willing to talk about the shortcomings and that’s very important to our research, because our recommendations are rooted in that comparison between success and lack of success,” Darnall said.

Justin Stritch

The team sent the survey in January, months before President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. But despite the reversal at the federal level, 10 states and nearly 330 American cities, including Phoenix, have committed to the voluntary goals of the agreement — a 26 to 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025.

“We didn’t know how timely this would be,” said Justin Stritch, one of the researchers and an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs. The other two team members are Stuart Bretschneider, Foundation Professor of organization design and public administration and director of research at the Center for Organization Research and Design, and Lily Hsueh, an assistant professor of public policy and economics in the School of Public Affairs.

“Now we have something we can bring to these municipalities at a time when they’re saying, ‘OK we’ve committed to this. Now what can we do?’ ”

Boosting the green

The city of Phoenix was an important part of the project. The ASU team met with 14 purchasing officers from different city departments, including the airport and the convention center, in a focus group. Their feedback helped the professors shape the questions they asked in the survey.

“They all do things differently, and that was important to understand. It’s easy to think local governments act monolithically or that purchasing happens one way. This isn’t the case,” Darnall said.

Although Phoenix has had a green purchasing program for several years, it was looking to revitalize it, according to Joe Giudice, the city’s environmental programs administrator. He and Marina Estrella, an environmental quality specialist for the city, worked with the ASU team.

In the focus groups, they realized that employees who buy things had the perception that “green” products would cost more.

“We wanted to make sure we could demonstrate that is not the case, and we were able to reintroduce the concept of using life-cycle analysis — when you can buy something today that costs more but lasts a lot longer,” he said.

Phoenix is now beefing up its electronic purchasing system to make it easier to buy environmentally preferable products, Giudice said. Interns from ASU’s School of Sustainability are helping with that project.

Finding what works

The team boiled the findings down to eight practices used by local governments that have successful green purchasing policies. Here’s a summary:

1. Build on complementary practices. Cities that already have sustainability policies on recycling or energy use, for example, are in a better position to have a good green purchasing policy.

2. Use information about environmentally preferred products. Darnall said that there are many types of “eco-labels” with varying levels of accuracy and reliability. The report recommends following the eco-labels preferred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.3

3. Utilize e-procurement systems that integrate environmental product information. The team said that cities should follow the EPA recommendations on which systems are best.

4. Track spending related to green purchases. Cities that track spending are more likely to elevate the importance of green purchasing and develop goals.

5. Enhance collaborative vendor relationships. With limited information on green products, vendors can be a source of knowledge. Darnall said that typically, citiesThe cities were all over 25,000 population and representative for geography and income. The team was able to double its response rate by hiring four students to call officials who received surveys but hadn’t responded. are advised to keep vendors at arm’s length to avoid the potential for corruption. “But when it comes to issues of sustainability, collaboration leads to more successful outcomes,” she said.

6. Assign responsibility to top-level management. This signals the importance of green purchasing and helps build momentum and commitment. The survey found that top-level management involvement was more important than financial resources in a successful policy.

7. Foster a culture of innovation. Green purchasing programs are more successful with empowered employees who can take managed risks and be rewarded.

8. Participate in professional networks to share best practices. Learn from those who have done it. (The report lists the International Green Purchasing Network, Responsible Purchasing Network and Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council as resources.)

Darnall said that Phoenix was the perfect example for the project.

“Although the research speaks to cities that have no sustainable purchasing policies, cities like Phoenix that are interested but have challenges are the ones that are most likely to make significant changes.”

Visit the project website here.

Top photo: The city of Phoenix, shown here from South Mountain, was an important part of ASU's Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now