Enticing Prospective Students Through Landscaping

It’s in the first 15 minutes that prospective students are on campus that they tend to make a decision, according to Jeff Funovits, RLA, a principal with Pittsburgh-based Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann. What decision is that? Whether to attend that school.

“A lot of those decisions are based on the landscape and the overall university environment,” Funovits adds.

Feeling the pressure? In today’s competitive environment, many administrators are. As such, they’re reintroducing curb appeal — using several landscaping strategies to enhance the campus environment — to attract students.

1. Creating Edges and Boundaries

“From a landscape perspective, curb appeal breaks into big and small,” says Sara Moore, RLA, a principal with Burt Hill.“When we talk big, it’s really defining the edges and boundaries of campus.” Boundaries allow you to know when you’ve crossed into a different space and helps give a university a special identity.“Boundaries can be made by physical means with walls, buildings, portals and gateways,” she notes. “And they also can be made with landscape items like trees and lush plantings that divide spaces and say, ‘Hey, you’re now in a new environment.’”

“There are specific elements that we use all the time,” says Funovits. “For example, if a tree is located between a sidewalk and a road, it tends to make you feel like you’re on campus because the tree is creating the edge. If you flip that tree onto the inside of the sidewalk, suddenly you’re more part of the streetscape and less part of the university.”

Hiram College in Ohio is perfect example, notes Moore. In deciding how to site a new science facility near existing science facilities on a campus broken in two by a wide street with parking on both sides, a unique idea surfaced. Part of the existing street was removed to make way for the science facility. What was left of the street on either side of the facility was turned into a pedestrian promenade. “Now the original street is a place where community and campus gatherings are held,” she says. It still serves as an access for emergency vehicles and service.

More importantly, a new street was built around the facility, thus creating a new campus edge. That boundary is more defined by the fact that the science facility has an archway that flows from the edge into the common space. From the town’s perspective, the view is through the archway into the common space, as opposed to a large brick wall.

“The result for us was a unified central campus with a new common space right in the middle,” comments Michael Grajek, Hiram’s academic vice president.

2. Creating Scale Space

In planning landscaping, it’s important to create a variety of large- and small-scale spaces for a variety and intensity of campus uses, says Moore. Large formative spaces, like the student union lawn, are needed for large gatherings and playing games. Yet, small spaces are needed — both in the academic core and residential areas — for meeting in small groups between classes or sitting and studying. “The small spaces have more intimate plantings and more highly detailed pavements and stones and bricks,” she says.

“One thing that’s important about creating scale space,” says Funovits, “is how the large and small spaces are connected. We develop a palette of materials for each space so that students, staff and visitors can tell where they are and where they’re going by the materials around them and what they’re walking on.” For example, a campus may use white asphalt for their main walkway as a clear identifier that you’re walking on a cross-campus connector. Likewise, if you’re walking on a brick pathway, you’re probably walking on a connection between two specific buildings or two different neighborhoods. “Ultimately, creating scale spaces becomes a means of wayfinding,” says Funovits.

Moore echoes that sentiment, noting that administrators at the University of Connecticut abundantly use their oak leaf logo to that purpose. Oak leaf patterns can be found in pavement as you traverse campus. It also has been incorporated into a guard railing: “Now it becomes a sculptural item in the landscape,” she says. “It’s recalling again and again where you are, a sense of place created through icons.

“The devil is in the detail,” Moore continues. “Wayfinding is also used to incorporate everybody as equal.” Carefully choosing materials and landscaping in creating ADA-accessible routes allows those needing handicap access to have just as nice a means to building entrances and spaces as those who don’t. “It isn’t an afterthought,” she stresses.

3. Creating Features

“It’s no longer appropriate to design a building without thinking of the landscape or vice versa,” says Funovits. Architecture and landscape must be integrated.

For example, at Penn State, the duo used a fountain as an entry feature of a new facility. “It’s not only an exterior entry feature,” says Moore. “When you’re inside the building, the fountain is a highlight glimpsed from a number of windows and portals.

“That project was a landscape treatment that had an effect on the building,” Moore says. “But buildings also can have an effect on the landscape.” For example, the pair worked on a project that included building a facility with a large square footage requirement. From a scale point of view, they wanted the facility to fit into the fabric of campus and not look like a monstrosity. The solution was to put a third of the facility underground. To keep it from having a basement-type environment, skylights bring in natural daylight. “The skylights in the landscape are clues that there is something happening underground,” says Moore. “They became a feature while creating a positive living environment inside the building.”

Making a Plan

Introducing curb appeal is a great idea — but where to begin? Administrators at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., began with a master plan. That plan has a number of initiatives:

1) keep parking away from the center of campus;

2) improve and create building thresholds; and

3) establish a material palette to unify the campus structure, and create open and inviting spaces for public interaction.

The plan is working, notes Justin Butwell, P.E., Marist’s Physical Plant director. In a recent survey of the top things that people like about the campus, the beautiful landscaping campus was number two. What was number one? The views of the Hudson River.

Creating edges and boundaries, creating scale space and creating features all work to create a sense of place that first attracts students and then allows them to gather years of warm memories.

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