Madeline Morphis: Pioneering Sustainability Leadership with UVA's Award-Winning Planting Team

student recipients of UVA's 2023 Sustainability Leadership Awards
In recognition of their work in 2023 leading forest patch plantings across Grounds, (l–r) Madeline Morphis (BUEP and BA Env. Sciences '25), Olivia Vargo (BS Env. Sciences and BA Global Sustainability ’24), and Leah Germain (BS Env. Sciences ’25) received a monetary prize and a framed print of the Blue Ridge mountains at the UVA Office for Sustainable Leaders Luncheon on May 3, 2024. Photo: Coe Sweet

Meet Madeline Morphis (BUEP and BA Env. Sciences '25), an undergraduate planning student at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, whose dedication to sustainability recently earned her recognition from the UVA Office of Sustainability. Along with her collaborators Leah Germain (BS Env. Sciences ’25) and Olivia Vargo (BS Env. Sciences and BA Global Sustainability ’24), Madeline was honored with the 2023 Sustainability Leadership Award for their impactful work on the Forest Patches project at UVA. This initiative involved designing and planting five new "forest patches" on Grounds, engaging over 200+ volunteers (students, faculty, staff, and community members) in planting 800+ native trees and plants.

For our student spotlight series, we asked Madeline to elaborate on her experiences and insights gained from this commendable endeavor.

How has your work in the Decarbonization+ Academy and the forest patch plantings with Leah Germain and Olivia Vargo dovetailed with your studies and interests in Urban + Environmental Planning?

The Forest Patches at UVA project has meshed well with my studies and interests in Urban + Environmental Planning and the field of sustainable design in general. My background in planning has been particularly useful when it comes to the research, proposal making, and designing that is necessary to implement a patch. The project has exposed me to the many different facets of planning and the variety of roles urban planners can take on. This experience has reinforced my desire for sustainability to be at the forefront of my future career path.     
Has the project influenced any future career plans related to sustainability?

Through the project I discovered how much I enjoy working with natural elements. This was also my first time getting to explore the field of landscape architecture, coming up with planting designs and drawings for the sites in collaboration with Helen Wilson from the Office of the Architect. As a result of this project and classes I have taken, I plan to apply to Masters of Landscape Architecture (MLA) programs in the fall. Working on climate change mitigation and adaptation designs is a meaningful and rewarding experience.   

UVA students plant trees in a vacant green space behind the president's house
Vargo and Morphis helped place trees ahead of the planting at Carr's Hill (left). They were joined by numerous students, faculty, and staff on March 15, 2024 for a successful forest patch planting day. 

What have been the biggest joys and challenges of the forest patch plantings?

The most fulfilling aspect of the project has been the planting days themselves. I have been blown away by the amount of student support the project has received. It has been incredible to see students from across the university, faculty, and community members attend our planting days. At the events, I have heard people talking about coming back to visit and take care of the tree they are planting. This shows how the project is helping create and foster connections with nature which is incredibly gratifying. 

The biggest challenge of the project was taking it from the planning to implementation phase. We spent the entire summer planning the project, but it took more than half of the fall semester to work through all of the logistics of acquiring the plants, setting the date, and recruiting volunteers. I have gained a deeper appreciation and understanding for all of the time and hard work that goes into projects like this one.     
Given the success of the project, are there any plans to try to secure additional funding to extend the forest plantings beyond the five sites on Grounds?

UVA Facilities Management graciously funded the first patch, and then, we received a generous grant from the university's Arboretum and Landscape Committee (A&L Committee) during the fall semester which funded both of our spring semester planting days. We have plans to update the A&L Committee over the summer on our progress from this year. During our presentation to them in the fall of 2023, they provided us with an invitation to present to them again in the fall of 2024 to request more funding for the project. We hope to explore additional funding options throughout the summer and fall as well.   
Which tree or plant in the forest patch plantings are you most excited to see mature and become part of UVA’s landscape, and why?

I am most excited to see the Tulip Poplars grow and mature into the UVA landscape because they can end up being over one-hundred feet tall. They are fantastic shade trees with unique leaves and beautiful blooms. 

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