Achieving a Well-Designed Sense of Place

“A sense of place is difficult to explain because it’s so common sense,” said Phil Myrick, vice president of New York-based Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit urban planning and design organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities.“It’s looking at ways to build community in terms of places to live and destinations that draw people together in a vibrant public environment.”

A campus needs to function in different ways for the users and the people maintaining it, and creating a sense of place pulls those things together, said Judy Nitsch, president of Boston-based Nitsch Engineering. She is also a trustee at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and chairs that board’s facilities committee.“For example, for the users, a campus has to function as a travel path between destinations and events, as well as a means of supporting the university brand.” Adding beauty to those functions via landscaping, well-designed facilities, and more creates the sense of place.

For administrators, there are a number of reasons why creating a sense of place is important, and a number of ways to create it.

The Importance of Creating a Sense of Place

Myrick offers an academic way of looking at the importance of creating a sense of place. “In some ways campuses are one of the greatest American achievements in terms of creating a sense of place with a very intentional community. That sense of place enhances learning. The curriculum, facilities, and learning environment were thought of holistically. In our opinion, if you lose that integrated idea, you lose part of your learning culture. Specifically, you lose the bulk of the interaction between students and faculty, and you lose opportunities between the campus and host community.”

Academics aside, there are practical reasons for creating a sense of place. “Studies show that it takes students 10 seconds to make a decision to enroll when visiting a campus,” said Nitsch. “They don’t necessarily notice the flowers, but they do receive an impression of an attractive, pleasant, well-cared-for, and caring place because the campus looks well-cared-for from a physical plant point of view. That transcends to how well they’ll be treated.” She also cautions administrators that they don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.

Similarly, creating a sense of place is about creating safer environments, said Myrick. “Places where people feel engaged with their neighbors are much healthier, safer places.”

From an aesthetic perspective, creating an overall sense of place is really about creating more happiness in our communities, said Myrick. “It’s creating places where people meet, and socialize, and become who they are really meant to be in a social community.”

Nitsch agrees, offering that there’s nothing worse than not liking how to get from point A to point B. “It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience that I want to avoid,” she said. “Instead, it can be part of the overall experience of my environment.”

Creating a Sense of Place on Campus

There are a number of things to consider when working toward creating a sense of place on campus.

It must be intentional. Nitsch suggests that administrators begin with a master plan. When Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts purchased additional land, administrators looked at their master plan, asking if the campus’s center of gravity was shifting and how they could connect the new area to the campus. The Boston-based architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott created an arts walk along the travel path from old to new.

The firm was determined to make the arts walk a destination rather than just a travel path with the Worcester Art Museum sandwiched between the two areas of campus. The first new building, a residence hall, is already under construction on the new section of campus. Its cornerstone and side are designed so that art is an experience on the path between old and new.

Being intentional doesn’t mean going broke. Of course there are facilities to be built, programs to create, and capital budgets to adhere to. Once those are in order, said Myrick, take another step and be intentional so that the results of the projects breathe more life into the social environment. “It can be as simple as relocating a cafeteria to the ground floor to have an outdoor terrace next door to a library so that there’s a synergy between the library and cafeteria,” he said. “It isn’t building different things, but building in a different way and in different places so a synergy occurs.”

It must be managed. A university is a rich environment with numerous programs and events, including concerts, lectures, performances, arts, and more. “But almost all of it is buried deep inside buildings, in music halls and lecture halls,” said Myrick. By managing outdoor spaces to create settings for events and programs, administrators create more visible campus energy and enjoyment for people passing by and people who bought tickets. “Ultimately, management is about taking campus resources and tweaking them a little bit for maximum impact,” he observed.

It must balance interiors and exteriors. It’s important to balance interiors and exteriors on the destination path, keeping in mind that not all spaces are the same and that you actually want a variety. For example, there are open spaces, spaces for contemplation, interaction, and more. “When you think about and look for opportunities to create specific spaces, it will ultimately seem like they’re happenstance when in fact, they’re planned,” said Nitsch.

The campus center building at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is an example of this balance. It is sited to be near the center of campus as a destination space, but also as a pass-through space. “If you’re just passing through, you stop when you run into friends gathered at umbrella tables on the patio,” said Nitsch.

It must consider your priorities. What you end up with in terms of creating a sense of space depends on your priorities. Myrick notes that, for many campuses, parking has been a priority. “We have answered every need that the auto has and have lost track of the more human needs of a person with two legs,” he said. One result is that campuses now have greater distances between destinations, and more isolation. Another result is more traffic and less walking.

If your priority in creating a sense of place is considering the environmental impact, you’ll end up with a plan that allows facilities to be within a walkable environment, complete with pedestrian-friendly streets and destinations that encourage pedestrians to be outside.

To this end, Harvard University has a no new parking policy. Administrators there recognize that they have and want to keep a walking community. When transportation is needed, the campus is served by transit.

Similarly, other universities are creating incentives to leave cars at home and creating ride-share programs. “It really has to be a strategy worked on at many levels, starting with where the campus is located and where the housing is located,” summed Myrick.

It must work across disciplines. As Myrick indicates above, creating a sense of place according to your priorities requires input from many disciplines.

Engineers can use the opportunity to make something that’s functional beautiful. Considering ADA is a perfect example. “If you’re going to put in a ramp, make sure it looks beautiful and is well thought out in addition to being functional,” said Nitsch.

Architects contribute to creating a sense of place through a well-crafted and continually updated master plan. This tool allows for key questions to be asked, including if a facility serves as a destination or pass-through, how it fits in the surrounding environment, and where are spots for social spaces?

With tight budgets, it’s easy to cut the landscape architect, but it may not be the wisest place to save money. Landscape architects accessorize a new facility and help it meld into the campus fabric. Their services are especially important when considering branding and marketing to potential students.

Once you’ve become an expert at creating a sense of place, consider going the distance, as did administrators at University of Virginia. They needed a storm-water retention basin. They ended up with a retention basin that also functions as a cleansing agent for storm-water quality, but is disguised as a beautiful park. “If we, as designers, can create a sense of place that also serves a function, then we’ll have gotten a ‘two-fer,’” said Nitsch.