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Campus Landscapes and the Student Experience

When alumni think back on their university days, they often fondly recall traversing campus paths heading to and from class; lying in the grass studying; or escaping to beloved outdoor enclaves of campus with friends to break from frenetic schedules. Some of the most influential and cherished settings on American college campuses are the outdoor spaces that stitch buildings together.

From influencing a student’s initial decision to attend a particular institution, to serving as a connective backdrop for the student experience, to exposing new ecological and sustainable best practices to a new generation of young people, landscapes can be key to shaping institutional identity and impact.

As the landscape architecture profession and institutions of higher education evolve to respond to and anticipate changes in pedagogy, student demographics, technology, and environment, designers and administrators should keep an open dialogue about how new needs and new design approaches to landscape architecture can yield exciting opportunities to shape the college experience. We sat down with Caroline Braga, ASLA, principal and leader of our campus landscape practice, and Andrew Gutterman, ASLA, landscape architect with extensive campus landscape experience, to discuss where campus landscape design is headed.

Q: In what ways does the design of a campus’ landscape impact how people experience the campus?

Andrew Gutterman (AG): The word “campus” was first used to describe the outdoor space in front of Nassau Hall at Princeton University as a way to distinguish its open character from that of more urban, cloistered European models. I like to think that the landscape continues to be one of the most defining aspects of an institution’s identity and has profound impacts on the quality of daily life for students, faculty and staff. Providing places to decompress between classes, places for meeting up with friends in the evening, or places for sharing in traditions that connect the present with the past are just a few ways that the landscape shapes the academic experience.

Caroline Braga (CB): Landscape is memorable—and it has now been proven—landscape is also good for you! Researchers at Stanford recently found that spending time in “nature” reduces negative thoughts and enhances one’s sense of wellbeing. Given many institutions’ focus on student wellness as a critical factor in academic success, campus landscape is starting to be thought of as a key program element along with interior academic and student life spaces to support student engagement.

Q: How is Sasaki using campus landscape design in practice today to enhance the broader student experience?

CB: We believe that connected campuses encourage students to interact with one another and with the natural environment, enhancing wellness and social and academic success. Our practice, which extends from planning to built scale, instills a sense of responsibility to enhance the continuity of the overall campus experience.

AG: Creating moments that enable students to connect with nature within their otherwise busy and structured schedules is one theme within our work.  While developing the master plan for The Lawrenceville School [pictured below], an independent school near Princeton, New Jersey, we learned how, as a student, Aldo Leopold—a pioneer of the modern environmental movement and a Lawrenceville alum—wandered the forests and fields that surrounded the campus and became inspired by what he saw.  We found opportunities in the master plan to highlight natural features still present on campus and to create a revitalized ecological corridor that students would engage with on a regular basis as they travel between activities.

CB: Agreed. Campus landscapes often serve as the backdrop for students’ formative experiences; the types of landscapes that students encounter on campus will inform what they expect to see in the built environment after they leave school. If students experience, understand, and enjoy sustainably designed or managed landscapes on campus, they will be more likely to become stewards of the built and natural environment after graduation. Several of our recent projects, including the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical District landscape, which received Gold Sustainable Sites certification, and the University of Rhode Island Brookside Apartments landscape, which is targeting LEED Silver, include large landscape restorations. We hope these landscapes will become as beloved by students as their campuses’ historic malls and quads.

Q: Recently, a few older Sasaki projects have been demolished or are at risk of being demolished. In the face of evolving needs in the built environment, it seems that landscape elements are particularly at risk for overhaul. What are your views on ephemeral versus enduring landscape design?

AG: Landscapes are always changing, both deliberately through human actions, as well as through the inherent process of growth and decay. Those that have aged best tend to have a structure that is legible, yet are also flexible enough to accommodate change without losing their essential qualities. Our Nord Family Greenway project at Case Western Reserve University [pictured below] is intended to function in this way. Much of Frederick Law Olmsted’s campus work also comes to mind as having endured the test of time for similar reasons.

CB: That tension between preservation and adaptation is present with many of our higher education clients. As institutional sustainability goals grow more ambitious, landscapes are beginning to be seen as potential contributors to those targets. We engage in dialogue with our clients about maintaining traditional landscapes within heavily used or iconic spaces on campus, while developing landscapes that perform ecological services in other areas. Though traditional lawns and trees are often ecologically sterile, they serve other important campus needs. There is room on most campuses for both great lawns and more complex and ecologically functional landscapes, such as meadows and woodland patches.

Q: How have campus planning and landscape design practices changed over the course of your careers, and what trends are you seeing today?

CB: Today’s designers and administrators are much more conscious of how campus design shapes a school’s culture. From issues of inclusion to issues of free speech, institutions are talking a close look at the values that their historic and new landscape spaces communicate to their students. Historic monuments are being removed at some institutions, while other schools are expanding the scope of interpretive signage programs to tell a more multifaceted campus history. Concepts of universal design—in which all people, regardless of ability, have the opportunity to have equivalent experiences, are now embraced as key design drivers. For instance, our campus master plan at Virginia Tech and our Lehigh University Bridge West project both place universal design at the center of the landscape concept.

AG: There’s also a renewed awareness that landscapes can be purpose-built as spaces for social interaction and active learning and not just as scenery. It parallels our reawakening in this country to the value of the outdoor realm in towns and cities. When I moved to Boston twenty years ago, you could probably count the number of outdoor cafes in the city on one hand. We’ve since remembered that even in New England being outdoors can actually be pleasant during five or six months out of the year and that people really want to be outdoors. If landscapes accommodate that desire, people will do the rest!

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