The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

The Healing Power of Landscape

When work commenced on the University of Texas at Austin (UT) campus master plan in 2013, Austin was in the midst of a 10-year drought. City reservoirs were at about a third of their capacity, and water for irrigation was being rationed. Against this backdrop, university administrators embraced the opportunity that the planning process presented to develop ambitious new goals for sustainable campus development. Five years later, one of the first of many projects laid out in the master plan has been completed, with impressive results.

The Dell Medical Center is the first new medical school to be built at an AAU-recognized research university in nearly 50 years. Created through an unprecedented partnership with local taxpayers, the school promotes “A Vital, Inclusive Health Ecosystem.” This mission is expressed in its green, inviting, and people-centered campus. Within this new Health District, people and the landscape are treated as meaningful contributors to a system focused on improving health and wellness.

Improved Connectivity

The Sasaki-led landscape design team laid out the new Medical Center campus to enhance connectivity between downtown Austin and the UT Campus, and to act as an amenity for the community. The district’s streetscapes feature shade trees, perennial grasses and flowers, benches, bike parking, bike lanes and transit stops—all the amenities landscape architects can deploy to encourage walking, biking, and transit use. Gathering spaces within the district are punctuated with artwork and open to the public, supporting social connections.

The university’s commitment to the overall health and well-being of the campus community inspired the relocation of 14 monumental live oak trees that were in the path of construction. Beloved for their beauty and for the shade they provide, the transplanted oaks extend the character of the university’s historic Beaux-Arts main campus into this new district, though without the main campus’ water-hungry manicured lawns and hedges. The trees’ size and whorled form offsets the presence of the large heath care facilities with a good dose of biophilia.

In addition to supporting community health and wellness, the district’s design realizes the university’s goal of achieving SITES certification for new landscapes on campus. Developed through a collaboration between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at UT Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden, Sustainable SITES is a certification program that goes beyond sustainable building-rating systems to recognize projects that protect ecosystems and emphasize healthy, functioning, and resilient landscapes.

Climate Considerations

Austin receives about the same amount of annual rainfall as Boston, but in Austin it is concentrated into periods of intense rains—and intense heat and dryness. Achieving SITES Gold certification on the flood- and drought-prone site required focus on both stormwater management and water conservation at different times of the year. Often designed as hidden or passive systems, here stormwater BMP’s are celebrated to call attention to the local climate and hydrology. Through a combination of pervious pavers, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, and revegetation of the floodplain, the project stores, infiltrates, and slowly releases the 80th percentile of a rainfall event, or approximately 46,939 cubic feet of water, which is equivalent to one foot of water spread out over the surface of a football field. To conserve water while allowing plant life to thrive, the design includes native plants adapted to the local climate, restored soil to support the plantings, integrated real-time irrigation monitoring, and reuse of rainwater and air-conditioning condensate in the landscape. To date, irrigation has been reduced by 75 percent.

The Waller Creek corridor itself, once a degraded overgrown landscape that pedestrians avoided, is now the central feature of the new district. The creek restoration included removal of invasive species, streambank re-stabilization, and the removal of bridges that were negatively impacting creek hydrology. The restoration planting palette was modeled after native plant communities at a nearby Nature Conservancy preserve. The focus on sustainability extended to landscape maintenance and operations practices; as part of the design process, the team of landscape architects and ecologists worked with UT staff to adopt new sustainable methods for these nontraditional, “no lawn” campus landscapes.

With its balanced approach to health, community, and ecology, the Dell Medical Center landscape sets a new standard for sustainable site development on university campuses. The reinvigorated health of the landscape inspires human interaction with the site, furthering the university’s commitment to health and wellness, while evolving public standards for landscape aesthetics.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Joe Hibbard, FASLA, is principal and landscape architect at Sasaki (wwww.sasaki.com).

Caroline Braga, ASLA, is principal and landscape architect at Sasaki (wwww.sasaki.com).

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