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Designing a Unified Campus

When landscape and other site designers get creative, a campus's character can shine.
University Business, May 2007

SHADED BY A WILLOW TREE, A SMALL CLASS SITS ON a well-manicured lawn. The women's running team circles around a pristine track as seated onlookers applaud.

These images come to mind when one a prospective student or parent in particular envisions a college campus. They are images that define the competitive landscape in higher ed. Families tend to come away from a campus tour with a strong instinct about the school, colored in large part by whether it matches the look and feel of the campus of their dreams. So the character of a campus whether it truly has that storybook look and feel can be a critical differentiator in the final decision.

What makes a campus feel like a campus? Grass quadrangles with shade trees may come to mind, but an urban campus can achieve just as much appeal by carving out green space within its boundaries and utilizing open space as an organizational element.

In fact, unity is the primary factor that makes a campus feel "like a campus." A harmonious interplay of buildings, open space, programming, security, and layout is essential to campus unity, and it becomes one of the school's primary marketing tools. It inspires confidence in parents, and a sense of well-being and motivation in prospective students.

A consistent site vocabulary also contributes to unifying a campus. Signage and graphics, hierarchical paving and pedestrian circulation systems, site furniture, bollards (short vertical posts), receptacles, fencing, and curbing lend legibility, orientation, and clear boundaries and perimeters.

Campus gateways, signs, and other visual cues like plantings and lighting that assist visitors with finding their way around are also critical contributors to identity, creating important initial impressions. Informational kiosks animate a campus and provide visitors with orientation and updates on events. Reliable lighting and call boxes provide an extra measure of security. Finally, the landscape itself gives the campus an inviting aesthetic and seasonal identity. The image of a campus is primarily identified by the overall development of the built environment, including the landscape and site elements.

A commitment to unifying a campus and achieving that true campus feeling can be made at any time in an institution's life cycle. These decisions come about in a number of ways. Often the feedback of students and alumni is the motivation behind the decision by a school's president or board of trustees to enhance the campus image.

A harmonious interplay of buildings, open space, programming, security, and layout inspires confidence in parents, and a sense of well-being and motivation in prospective students.

At other times, the decision arises secondarily, when a school undertakes another type of project such as embarking on a master planning effort, becoming ADA compliant, contemplating the usage of a newly acquired parcel of land, converting an existing building to a new use, or addressing a parking shortage. Inevitably the conversation turns to the ever present bigger picture: How can we make our campus look more like a campus?

Ideally, even if this question is not directly raised, a landscape architecture firm or other design team engaged to address a particular project will at least bring up the issue and urge the school to consider the broader impact on the campus. A good design team will always have in mind how any on-campus undertaking might enhance the aesthetics and feel of the campus as a whole now and into the future.

The most lasting, effective, and economical way to achieve campus unity is to establish a master plan. A master plan can determine standards for elements such as signage, fencing, receptacles, and furniture and can prevent the inconsistencies and hodgepodge feel that arise from improvements made without the benefit of an overall plan to guide them. Investing time and resources in creating a master plan offers (a) a multifaceted, appreciable return that also includes streamlined decision-making achieved by drawing on cohesive design standards, and (b) an improved ability to engage in capital campaigns because one is able to effectively convey a vision and predict costs.

The role of a landscape architect can be critical in the master planning process by:

- Establishing a unique character and identity for a campus.

- Creating campus wide consistency.

- Providing planning and maintenance staff with guidelines for future improvements.

- Developing a phasing plan based on priorities and available resources.

- Identifying areas of improvement for building and grounds staff to incorporate into annual work plans.

- Determining areas that need capital improvements.

- Guiding site design for future building projects.

- Streamlining the overall decision-making process.

- Improving maintenance by establishing levels of service for specific areas.

When colleges and universities engage a landscape architecture firm, that firm often becomes the school's long-term partner and institutional memory for the campus. Providing this continuity in a site design team is another strategy that can help in maintaining campus unity.

Once the decision is made to strive for an enhanced campus feel and a master plan has been developed, a design firm can utilize a wide range of elements and approaches to enhance unity and create a cohesive identity, such as:

- Establishing an open space system.

- Creating a new entry experience, including way finding and gateways.

- Incorporating a system of campus gathering areas, which may include a focal point, such as a fountain or sculpture.

- Creating a pedestrian environment with consistent paving, fencing, pedestrian scale lighting, and landscape.

- Providing a palette consisting of outdoor site furnishings, paving materials, and landscape.

When officials at Boston College wanted to make changes to better unify its campus landscape and project a warm, friendly feeling to visitors, students, and staff, officials turned to a team of Geller DeVellis landscape architects to create a landscape master plan for the institution.

The college's mission was to create a community on campus with designated core areas, such as academic, residential, and recreational/athletic. In addition to incorporating these goals into Boston College's landscape master plan, the landscape architects further aimed to unify the campus by developing a pedestrian and vehicular plan around each core area to improve pedestrian circulation.

One particular circulation project involved creating a more pedestrian-friendly and organized area between the football stadium, recreation complex, and Conte Forum. The plan would have to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles, as well as create easily navigable and aesthetically pleasing plazas and open spaces that would be in line with the current campus character.

The design created a promenade for through traffic, and parking was separated from the through circulation by a treelined landscape island, creating a boulevard effect that complemented the rest of the campus roadway system. Large, round granite planters at the Conte Forum plaza were also strategically placed as organizing elements, providing opportunities for tree planting and seating.

The result of this project is an area of the campus that is both inviting and pedestrian oriented.

The combination of forethought and care in execution even in conjunction with a modest investment can yield significant results when improving a campus. Because an institution's campus is such a strong recruitment tool, it is important to create the texture, vibrancy, and poetry on that campus, which students and parents dream of when they envision their or their child's academic experience.

Joseph T. Geller and Robert M. Corning are partners at Boston-based Geller DeVellis (, which provides landscape architecture, site planning, and civil engineering services to educational institutions and other public and private entities, including construction management, engineering, and architecture firms.

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