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Facilities (Campus Spaces)

What Grows Here?

Healthy, sustainable grounds have an impact on everyone, from first-time visitors to students, stakeholders and the maintenance department.

Ten years ago, the success of any campus landscaping effort was judged solely on the aesthetic value it provided to students and faculty. While visual appeal still plays a major role in campus landscape planning, many grounds crews and landscape architects have come to realize that the true value of any planned space relies on both its visual appeal and functionality. Long gone are the days when gardens and grounds could get by on looks alone — they must now look good while working to benefit campus communities in subtle, and oftentimes imperceptible, ways.

Sustainable Grounds

PHOTO COURTESY OF GLENN ASAKAWA/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO

Some landscape planners want to provide students with shade in hot climates, while others are eager to install only native plants or grow gardens that provide fresh vegetables for the campus dining hall. Despite the varied aims of landscape planners and architects, the idea of sustainability is usually central to everyone’s efforts. As the economy surges and recedes, colleges and universities plan for fiscal uncertainty in various ways. A sustainable landscape is front and center in these initiatives. A modern landscape is only as good as its promise of sustainability and ease of maintenance. While having a sustainable campus landscape seems ideal, planning such a terrain takes research and careful preparation. Some universities have hired sustainability experts to analyze their grounds while others have established student-run landscape crews to work on building a functional hardscape. The methods and goals are diverse, but the lasting payoff of an attractive and sustainable campus is already being realized at many institutions around the country.

Green Gardens and Grounds

Mark Hough, campus landscape architect at Duke University in Raleigh, NC, is no stranger to the buzz of sustainability around outdoor college environments.

“You can no longer create campus landscapes without using some of metric for measuring it in terms of environmental impact — whether that be native plants, water use, habitat or something else,” says Hough. “It has been a fascinating process to watch — from the shortsighted, one-size-fits-all LEED-driven checklist, to the adoption of more specific, campus-wide initiatives.”

planting campus grounds

PHOTOS COURTESY OF CINCINNATI STATE TECHNICAL AND COMMUNITY COLLEGE

Hough notes that the idea of what constitutes attractive campus grounds has changed significantly through the past 10 years. “Landscape architects are becoming experts in creating sustainable landscapes that are both high-performing and beautiful,” Hough notes, adding that the task of getting a campus population more acclimated to a sustainable landscape can take a considerable amount of time and energy.

One of the most important aspects of planning a sustainable landscape can be accounting for differing ideas of beauty and functionality. Kimberly Vasko, who serves as landscaping and grounds supervisor at Ohio’s Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, notes that despite these differing ideas, a well-maintained campus landscape can have positive effects that extend beyond mere aesthetics. “Studies have shown that a beautiful campus can enhance and motivate employee productivity,” says Vasko. “Moving forward, the campus will continue to ‘grow’ as the plants develop and we incorporate more into the landscape.”

Planning for Plants

One of the most important elements of any campus landscape, notes Hough, is trying to plan for plants in a way that takes local conditions and weather patterns into account. Along with seasonal considerations comes the issue of water use, which is especially important in hotter and drier climates.

“Planning for all new landscapes on campus comes with serious discussion about water and water use,” says Hough. “We try to be smart and selective about how and where we use potable water for irrigation; often it is turned off after plants get established and then used only in abnormally dry periods.” Such planning is critical in an age where sustainability — including water conservation — has become almost important as aesthetics, adds Hough.

Another important aspect of planning a campus landscape deals with the type of plants a college wants to bring in. In past decades, there was a movement to bring rare and exotic plants to a campus environment to make it stand out. Now, the focus has shifted to the more sustainable approach of trying to cultivate native plants that will naturally thrive in a given landscape and climate. “For me, the use of native trees is a no-brainer. We call Duke a ‘university in the forest’ and try to keep most tree plantings native,” Hough says.

Drawing up a plan for native plants should include matters of irrigation and a realistic assessment of how much shade and sunlight each will need to reach its full growth potential. By ensuring that each tree and plant is given the optimal amount of necessary resources, maintenance crews can enhance appearance and prolong the life of a landscape without spending a dime.

campus grounds 

Pretty as a picture. A potential student’s first impression of a college or university is often based on the appearance of the campus grounds. Attractive, healthy landscaping can enhance the look and feel of your outside spaces and academic buildings and heighten the overall impression of your institution. Combine aesthetic goals with careful thought about environmental impact and ease of maintenance for long-term success.

High Traffic, Low Maintenance

Aside from planning for specific plants and trees, the impact of a student population on a landscape should be one of the most important elements that must be considered. “Campus landscapes should be functional places available for use for students and the entire community. Overuse and the compaction of lawns are big issues,” admits Hough.

Part of the challenge of producing sustainable campus grounds is creating areas that will stand up to high traffic without presenting continuous maintenance problems or costs. Because of this, planning for gyms, athletic facilities and public areas on campus is often some of the most difficult to accomplish.

At Duke University, Mark Hough has seen this problem firsthand, and tried to develop ways to help the landscape get “rest” during important times of year.

“We have been working on ways to ensure the landscape has a chance to recover after high-use periods, and keeping people off lawns during intense growth times,” he says, noting that it is important to not only investigate the impact a campus population is having on your landscape, but also to look at the effects on the soil beneath as well.

Hough and his colleagues at Duke are working to find soil types that will allow for more resilient root systems to grow. This helps high-traffic areas bounce back more quickly, he notes. By allowing strong root systems to take hold in healthy soil, landscape planers can easily mitigate the long-term effects of foot traffic on certain areas of campus, especially those that might host athletic or other public events.

The ‘S Word’

Many landscape architects begin their planning efforts with only environmental sustainability in mind. Hough notes that at there are two distinct types of sustainability that departments and landscapers should think about: cultural and environmental. “We tend to think exclusively about sustainability in terms of technical measures related to the environment, but when it comes to places like campus landscapes, we should not forget how important cultural sustainability is, too.”

For Hough, as well as many other successful landscape architects, creating a balance between the environmental and cultural elements of a campus is the goal of any successful landscaping effort. He sums up the goal of Duke’s landscaping team with this idea: “Identifying iconic spaces and established landscape character that instill passion in alumni and students, and then doing what we can respect and preserve them, is critically important, just as is trying to evaluate them through a lens of environmental responsibility.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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