Elements of a Successful Campus Plan for Public and Private Schools

Why do colleges and universities undertake campus planning projects? The justifications vary widely, but most campus plans involve some degree of quantitative investigation of space and facilities needs along with a qualitative study of the physical design of the campus. In developing such a plan, it is important to address several aspects of a campus that are fundamental to establishing a lasting image and design identity for any college or university.

Above all, the physical beauty of a campus is as important for residential colleges and universities as it is for community colleges. A strategically planned and well-maintained campus positively affects all aspects of college and university life -- from enhancing student recruitment and alumni support to instilling a sense of pride among faculty, staff, students and the community. Three primary elements that influence the physical beauty of a campus are a sense of place, hierarchy of movement and symbolic identity.

Sense of Place

Because the central mission of higher education institutions is the diffusion of knowledge and ideas between faculty and students, a viable campus must offer opportunities for people to gather and interact in a relaxed manner in formal and informal spaces. While this largely takes place on campus, it also happens within the civic spaces that connect the campus with the surrounding community -- a zone that is filled with energy and excitement. The sense of place within this area is reinforced by the mix of land uses, intensity of pedestrian activity and the use of architectural elements to frame gathering spaces. In urban settings such as Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard University campus is as much a part of the city as the city is a part of the campus.

On campus, small-scale, intimate gathering spaces provide inviting settings for students and faculty to meet in groups of two or three and offer quiet places for students to spend time alone studying or relaxing.

Even building entrances define a sense of place and are more than just a means of entry and egress. When the architecture and site design of these portals are prominent campus icons, they become formal celebration points, as well as informal gathering areas, thereby helping to define the sense of community on campus.

Hierarchy of Movement

Colleges and universities overflow with resources and learning opportunities, and one of the greatest planning and design challenges on a campus is to maximize student and faculty access to these resources. Strolling across campus to the library or lab should be both pleasurable and efficient -- as exciting and engaging as the learning that takes place in the classroom.

This can be a particularly delightful experience if the walkways are animated by buildings, landscape or people. For example, at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., a covered walkway adjacent to a building becomes more than a passageway; it is an inviting space that shapes one’s impressions of the campus.

Likewise, vehicular or pedestrian corridors are visually more attractive if they are framed by the landscape or by architecture. For example, Newell Drive at the University of Florida in Gainesville is enhanced by the thoughtful placement of trees, seating and bicycle parking.

Symbolic Identity

Each campus is a symbol, representing academic excellence, civic pride, and a rich and lasting heritage shared by generations of alumni. To convey a strong and consistent symbolic identity, a well-planned campus must have sufficient scale. Campus symbols are critical in wayfinding and orientation, especially for first-time visitors. For the everyday student, faculty and staff member, these symbols are subconscious guides and reminders that form their lasting images of the campus.

Often the nostalgic impressions we savor of a campus are the central quadrangle and broad expanses of lawns, particularly when they are framed by distinctive buildings and stately trees. One such example is the complementary organization of landscape and architecture of the Main Mall at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Strategically placed towers, steeples, cupolas and other vertical architectural elements also are important campus reference points for wayfinding and orientation as pedestrians walk around the campus.

From a different perspective, one of the most powerful visual symbols of any college or university is how the campus relates to the natural regional landscape. At New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the Organ Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop that changes with each hour of the day and with every season. Visual and physical connections to mountains, lakes, rivers and woodlands can be important symbolic reference points, as well as elements in defining the sense of place on a college campus.

In creating the visible, organizational and symbolic identity for a campus, planning and design decisions become increasingly important as means to capture the elements that create and sustain a unique sense of community and place, as well as nurture the campus legacy for generations to come.

William Colehower, AICP, And Tom Kearns, AIA, are principals with Boston-based Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott architects. For more information, visit their Website at .