Technology Simplifies Master Planning

The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa has experienced significant growth in the last two decades, with student enrollment increasing from 12,000 to more than 20,000. So it’s no surprise that, after putting together master plans in 1985 and again in 1993 to help direct this growth, university administrators knew they needed to do it again in 1998. They called on Dayton, Ohio-based Woolpert LLP, which had worked with them on the previous master plans, and told Woolpert partner Bill Love, AICP, to come on down so they could get started.

Both sides braced themselves for the process: Love and his team would fly in, assess needs and wants, meet with several groups, take notes and then fly home to start drawing. Once done, they would return with drafts, present them, collect feedback and return home to make changes. They would make as many trips as necessary to complete the job in the allotted time frame.

Throughout this painstaking process, university administrators would be searching for ways to get others on campus to “buy in” on the project and continually wondering if they had given the planning team all the information necessary to do the job well.

As it turns out, this time both sides were greeted with a pleasant surprise: The city of Tuscaloosa had a digital ortho photograph (a measurable aerial photograph) of the city. “It was purely a stroke of luck that we discovered the city had a digital ortho map that included the campus,” says Love. “And using the digital ortho photo is much less expensive than hand drawing, which is static and not as accurate.”

Finding the map meant that the planning could be done in real time with the help of the computer.

Here’s How

The planning team received the digital map on a CD. It comprised 20 large files; 10 of those files were the campus. Those 10 files were pieced together and brought into AutoDesk software (AutoCAD Release 14). AutoCAD allows a user to “draw” plans in layers, including elements such as landscape, topographic features, building footprints, parking, traffic and pedestrian circulation, site-specific graphic information and plans. The program also allows the map to be manipulated, projected and plotted in hard copy at varying scales and levels of detail. It’s ideal for looking at the entire campus or a specific section for either overall planning or developing detailed preliminary design activities. “Everything’s to scale so you know it’ll work now,” stresses Love. The computer would even let them add trees so they could see how the landscaping would work.

The planning team then used a high-resolution projector to display the map from the computer onto a screen. This PowerPoint presentation could be used during meetings to educate team members about the project and, best of all, actually to plan during the meetings, which is exactly what they did.

The team planned by dividing the campus into quadrants. Each quadrant was reviewed and planned through three functional classifications, each based on the purpose and use of the campus land and infrastructure, and each with different characteristics. They are circulation (vehicular, parking, service, pedestrian and bicycle), open space (formal and informal spaces; quadrangles; plazas; landscaped areas; gathering spaces; natural areas; and athletic, intramural and play fields) and facilities (buildings and structures).

If an idea was tried that didn’t work, someone from Woolpert made note of it, along with why it didn’t work, so there was accurate and thorough recordkeeping. The process also required someone from Woolpert to operate the equipment, going forward and backward or zooming in and out as directed by the planners.

Probably the most important tools necessary in the process, notes Love, were the laser light pointers. “People would say, ‘Here, pass me one of those pointers so I can show you something,’” he laughs. “They were passed around frequently.”

Seriously, though, the planners saved screen shots as the process moved along, so the plan proposals and related graphics were literally completed on the spot. Alabama administrators now have these as a part of their database. The final plan is available on the university Website, in a hard copy format and on a CD-ROM. It also has been downloaded on the university Land Management Office’s computer database and, as revisions are considered and updated, they will be incorporated into this file.

All in all, the Woolpert team made four trips to the campus between April and November 1998. On these multiday trips, they met with the various planning committees, which included the campus master plan committee, resource and priorities committee, parking services, safety committee, faculty senate and the executive committee of the alumni association. University organizations and departments that participated in the project included Facilities Planning & Design Services, Land Management, Student Affairs, Housing and Residential Life, Athletics and Public Safety. The team also met with the provost and deans, and worked with members of the campus and external community including Bryce State Hospital, Druid City Hospital, the City of Tuscaloosa Planning and Engineering Departments, and the Tuscaloosa Transportation Department.

On two of those trips, the planning team set up open forums in the student union from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., collecting ideas from anyone on campus who wanted to contribute to the plan.

Love estimates that between 500 and 600 people contributed to the project. This much input simply wouldn’t have been feasible if all the drawing had been done in the conventional style in Dayton. The bonus, he says, is that “everyone was pleased with the fact that they could be involved in the planning process and touch on the ‘nitty-gritty’ like lighting and security.”

The Ramifications

The planning team was so excited about the project that they encouraged a journalism student to cover it in the campus newspaper, a report was done on the campus radio station, and the information was loaded on a Website. “We have received more than 100 messages from that Web page,” says Love. “People write to ask, ‘Did you know this, did you think about that, thank you for....’

“This has taken planning to a new level of detail,” he adds. “Now we have an interactive, as opposed to static, planning process. It gets people to buy into the process.”

The process is different, Love notes, but the methodology is the same. The benefits are that people are more willing to try new options -- no one says “you can’t do that” -- and that it brings nonbelievers on board. Who can argue with that?

Ellen Kollie is editor of COLLEGE PLANNING & MANAGEMENT magazine.

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