Look to the Landscape

America’s college campuses are clearly at the forefront of a national movement toward environmental stewardship. Hundreds of campus facilities have risen to the challenge of becoming LEED Certified; the nation’s largest campuses are buying more and more “green power,” and many colleges have hired sustainability managers and have updated curricula to be more “green.”

While every campus will take a different approach to improving its impact on the environment, the end result is the same: A trend towards an environmentally friendly, responsibly developed, sustainable campus. At the same time, campuses across the country are facing student population influxes, leaving planners with a two-pronged challenge: accommodate the growth in an environmentally responsible way, but without sacrificing the aesthetics that help draw potential students.

Sustainable Land-Use Strategies
Today’s college and university growth management plans, while evaluating existing facilities and looking for ways to accommodate increased student populations, must also strike a balance with the need to protect the environment. The following strategies will help campus planners think “green” and meet campus needs — today and tomorrow.

Create or update a landscape architecture master plan. A guiding document that outlines how growth should occur, landscape master plans take into account the interplay between architecture, landscape, and circulation. The plan should ensure that each element is created, expanded, and protected in a sustainable manner.

Instead of selecting high-maintenance plants, opt for native landscaping. Aesthetically and environmentally speaking, plant palettes are indicative of a campus’s character. In addition, they have a direct impact on overall environmental impact. Indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowers offer a number of benefits: They require less maintenance — and less fertilizing means fewer chemicals released into the atmosphere. They have a longer lifespan. And whether the plants are on a Southern campus with extreme heat or a Northern campus faced with all four seasons, native plants have already adapted to survive local climate conditions.

Foster walkability. While it’s not uncommon to see college students drive half a mile from their residence halls to their next class, it’s not good for the environment… nor does it create a sense of community on campus. To avoid producing a vehicle-reliant campus, planning should focus on alternative transportation methods. A system of connected streets, trails, and sidewalks — not just a main drag running through the heart of campus — will facilitate walking, biking, and rollerblading.

Another example: To promote a bicycle culture and to alleviate parking shortages, Ripon College in Wisconsin is offering free bicycles to students who promise to leave their cars — and the carbon emissions that come with them — at home for the year. Look for innovative strategies to foster a more walkable, livable campus and strengthen campus life.
Think compact development first. The next time a new building needs to be constructed, consider identifying infill or reuse opportunities instead of looking for the next parcel of land to annex. Compact development enables schools to create a more close-knit campus environment. Plus, smarter land use is an integral component to achieving sustainability. When possible, undeveloped land should remain just that. To accommodate campus growth, search for opportunities to make better use of already developed land.

Resource Conservation and Infrastructure
Smarter land use isn’t the only key to being “green.” Responsible stewardship extends to other resources as well — particularly water. Consider the following strategies to enhance sustainability through infrastructure:

Create a stormwater management plan. Just as colleges study campus population projections to determine how many courses to offer or residence halls to build, planners must also consider these numbers when designing stormwater management systems. The goal should be to forecast growth and design a comprehensive system to accommodate such changes without having to build a separate stormwater management system.

Treat water management systems as campus “elements.” A retention pond doesn’t just need to be an unsightly fixture tucked away in a hidden corner of campus. A little careful planning and innovative thinking can create water management systems that are aesthetically pleasing and seamlessly integrated into other aspects of the outdoor campus. For example, when designed correctly, a retention pond can serve as a functional water element in a campus park.

Minimize impervious surfaces. Temperatures in urban areas are higher than those of nearby rural areas — resulting in increased energy demands, air conditioning costs, and air pollution levels. College campuses can help negate this phenomenon, known as the “heat island effect,” by incorporating green spaces with large canopy trees, reducing hardscape, and using environmentally friendly materials. For example, green roofs, permeable paving, and cisterns can enhance stormwater management and reduce the heat island effect.

Lessons Learned
The greening of higher education institutions will yield multiple benefits for both the campuses and the environment. As planners and administrators work together, they should continue to put eco-friendly practices at the forefront of college design.  In the long run, this will create a more efficient campus, and possibly a cheaper operations and maintenance bottom line.

John Paul Weesner, ASLA, is a senior urban designer at Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc.  He has worked on campus master plans, including the University of Central Florida, Florida Southern College, and St. Leo University.  He can be contacted at [email protected]