Campus Configurations

Nov. 1, 2003
Landscape master plans generate a sense of identity of school and university grounds.

Designing an educational campus is formidable. It introduces many of the same problems that must be addressed in creating a small city. Those problems often are compounded when a landscape master plan (LMP) is being developed for expanding an existing campus, because future design options are limited by present conditions.

Essentially, an LMP is a guide for developing and preserving a particular area over a specified period of time. In the case of a university campus, the goal is to establish a blueprint for change while maintaining the institution's sense of place and its identity as a site devoted to academic excellence. If an institution lacks a distinct sense of identity, a good LMP can help create one.

The need for a long-range plan may be spurred by enrollment growth or changing conditions that have rendered facilities obsolete. Outdoor spaces may have deteriorated; parking areas may need to be upgraded; paths and walkways might require repair; traffic may need to be rerouted. Often, the need to remedy specific conditions prompts university leadership to look at what improvements or additions might be required. An ambitious, forward-looking plan can help attract new faculty and students, and spur contributions from alumni to pay for the improvements.

Initial formulation

Creating an LMP usually begins with a site analysis and an inventory of existing conditions: evaluating campus assets and liabilities, defining future needs, establishing short- and long-term objectives, and proposing a timetable for completing each phase of the program. Among individual plans to be proposed are landscaping, transportation and parking, building and development, utilities and infrastructure, preservation and conservation, growth management and funding.

Site visits and walkthroughs, reviews of existing documents, reports, plans and drawings, and meetings with stakeholders help designers gather information. Planners also can learn a lot by observing how people use existing campus spaces and by visiting other campuses.

The constituencies affected by the redesign of a campus are far more diverse than those that might be involved in other projects of similar size. An education institution is available for night classes and usually is open on weekends for students, faculty and the public.

As a consequence, it is essential that the administration, faculty, students and the public take part in the master-planning process. A survey tailored specifically to user groups can provide an important guide and help avoid potential problems.

Campus expansion is not always welcomed by residents affected by growth. If a campus is at the edge of a city rather than deep in the suburbs, the “town-and-gown” interface may be contentious. Growth invariably brings increased traffic and noise levels, and the need for additional security. If an athletic arena or stadium is part of the expansion plan, the bright lights often are considered an unwanted intrusion.

Phased planning

Although an LMP usually focuses on a long-range goal, such as a 10- or 15-year projection, usually it is carried out in phases. For example, a library could be slated for completion in five years, a gymnasium in seven. It is difficult to project growth more than 10 years in advance. For that reason, a master plan may have more to do with past growth than with the outlook for the future.

If crowding is dictating an expansion, renting or renovating an existing building may solve the problem. If enrolling more students or enlarging the curriculum is driving the decision, the projection of future growth is likely to be less precise. In either event, physical factors go a long way in determining how to structure a master plan.

The location of a campus is critical. Institutions within the boundaries of a city present different problems from those in the suburbs. A metropolitan campus often is cramped, so the first priority is to maintain existing open or green space and to create as much new space as possible.

A design should use the space between new and old buildings to unite a campus and sustain the cohesive look that gives it identity. Landscaping and interior plazas can link one building to another. Materials and colors can help maintain a coherent appearance even when new buildings are different from the old. On suburban campuses, where spaces and buildings may be distant from the core of the campus, it is necessary to establish a cohesive design vocabulary to link the separate areas and create a unified campus identity.

Getting around

Transportation is a key issue. Most people reach urban campuses on public transportation, so the LMP should place new facilities as close to subway or bus lines as possible. Problems with vehicular traffic are likely to be on campus rather than in surrounding neighborhoods. By contrast, transportation planning for suburban campuses will focus largely on traffic congestion in the adjacent community and campus parking facilities.

Traffic management is vital where main roads or streets traverse an urban campus. Schools need to control vehicular speed by whatever means possible — adding traffic signals or turn lanes, or installing speed impediments such as planting buffers.

Pedestrian movement may be the most pressing traffic problem in an urban setting. It is easier to control vehicular traffic than on-foot circulation, because pedestrians are more inclined to ignore rules that limit their movement. One way to safeguard pedestrians on campus is to create a distinct separation between vehicular lanes and pedestrian pathways. But the most significant safety factor on both urban and suburban campuses is the location of parking facilities.

Satellite parking areas minimize traffic hazards because vehicles are parked away from the core of the campus. They allow for an interior, pedestrian-oriented core that minimizes vehicular conflicts and creates more open space and larger areas for gathering. The result is a campus that offers a more collegial environment. However, where satellite parking is used, the trip from car to classroom can be excessively long. In some instances, schools may need a second transportation system, such as a shuttle bus, to serve the campus.

By contrast, pocket parking on campus provides easier access but creates traffic problems for drivers and pedestrians. In addition, pocket parking breaks up open space for gathering and allows vehicles, rather than pedestrians, to dominate the campus. The school can ease congestion if it manages parking properly and assigns spaces. A college should assign spaces near the perimeter to those who live off campus, and students who reside on campus can be encouraged to park in the interior of the campus.

Traffic introduces a host of environmental issues that must be considered: air quality, noise, topography, soil types, wetlands, storm-water runoff, water quality, natural features and floodplains. For a campus expansion project of any reasonable size, an environmental-impact statement will be required along with the LMP.

The past informs the future

Although an existing campus can present constraints to an expansion project, it also offers advantages.

It is important to observe how people are moving through and using spaces on an existing campus. Understanding the inclinations of those who use the campus helps determine the future layout of paths and linkages.

For example, pedestrian pathways, often attractively paved with flagstone, are not always the shortest distance between two points. They may have been designed to meander their way across the campus. But a student late for class is likely to take the shortest route rather than the most scenic. These routes sometimes can be spotted by a path worn into the ground by frequent use. These are called “desire lines” and indicate the course that students prefer. If a paved walk is included in the master plan, it should be placed along the “desire line.”

Garcia is principal landscape architect for Vollmer Associates, New York City.

Unifying a New York City campus

A landscape master plan created a sense of place and unified New York Institute of Technology's three campus sites: Old Westbury and Central Islip on Long Island, and Manhattan in New York City.

Recommendations evolved from a planning and design process that included an inventory and analysis of campus facilities, observations of vehicular and pedestrian circulation, coordination with related campus improvements, concept studies and meetings with NYIT officials.

The project had four key goals: create a campus environment that reflects the institution's mission; prepare designs that enhance and improve the campus landscape and site facilities; develop site-design guidelines for upgrades and future development; and prepare a phased program for carrying out improvements.

  • Old Westbury: The woodland setting provides a scenic environment with a pedestrian scale and tranquil quality. Recommendations sought to create a new campus image and stronger visual identity.

    Possible future campus roadway and parking improvements include landscaping for seasonal color, screening views and edging; pedestrian-level lighting; and pavement restoration and enhancements.

    The two quads — the major outdoor gathering areas — have been redesigned to improve pedestrian circulation, parking needs and landscape enhancements. Recommendations for stylized campus treatments and furnishings, and improved landscape maintenance will further reinforce a unified campus image.

  • Central Islip: The campus occupies a large area and shares an entrance road with a public golf course. Large areas of open space, internal roads and a mature landscape define building groupings. The master plan seeks to create a unified campus core defined by a new entrance and to provide site improvements that will consolidate the campus.

    The campus consists of two- and three-story red-brick buildings, a canopy of deciduous trees, and a roadway grid configuration that provides the framework for developing a new campus core. Further study is required to determine the feasibility of relocating the entrance road and improving the intersection. The existing grass mall and tree canopy enhance the sense of arrival.

    The reconfiguration of roads and the consolidation of the parking areas present an opportunity for a more pedestrian-oriented environment. These improvements will define the image of a centralized campus and establish a visually unifying theme.

  • New York City: The Manhattan campus — four buildings on Upper Broadway — presents the unique challenges and limited options of all urban campuses. Streetscape design typically requires in-depth inspection of subsurface conditions and extensive coordination with regulatory agencies.

Although it is difficult to create a collegial atmosphere in the heart of the city, an enhanced architectural and streetscape treatment will create a distinctive urban campus. The sidewalk design consists of a decorative pavement with architectural lighting and newspaper boxes.

Along the building columns, planters with columnar evergreens define the building entrance and recessed arcade. These streetscape enhancements are consistent with other special treatments throughout the city. The building facades and signage also will be improved to project the institution's image.

At each campus, a unified treatment has been achieved through design continuity and cohesiveness. Site-specific design improvements have transformed the campuses' outdoor gathering spaces, parking areas, roads and walks. Landscape enhancements provide improved circulation, clearer spatial definition and visually attractive vistas.

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