Take It Outside

Landscaping, lighting, signage, gateway treatments, and gathering spots are only a few of the pieces that go into making a great outdoor experience on a college or university campus. The appearance and features that make up an institution’s exterior environment are almost as important as its indoor spaces.

Well-designed and maintained outdoor spaces provide places for both interaction and learning and can have a significant impact on recruiting. Thoughtful planning establishes the foundation for success and paves the way for implementing new features in responsible and efficient ways.

Planning Is Crucial
The outdoor experiences offered on a college or university campus speak to individuals in different ways and at different levels. The parents of a prospective student may focus on how secure a campus feels while their student focuses on WiFi access and areas for outdoor study. Great college campuses — those that stand out in our minds — do so because everything works together. And all pieces — the architecture, landscaping, and access — work together because there was a plan.

“Outdoor spaces are just as important as a university’s buildings,” says Art Lidsky, president of Dober Lidsky Mathey in Belmont, MA. “The exterior presence is the first thing a potential student evaluates. The outdoor environment is vitally important.”

Lidsky says that a successful campus plan addresses both facilities and landscaping, with a focus on the relationship between these two components. “It is important to look at buildings and the land as one interrelated element,” he says. “The plan ideally looks 10 to 15 years out from when it is completed and is re-evaluated every five years. You have to step back and ask yourself if you are still on the right path.”

The campus plan must consider the institution’s academic plan, according to Lidsky. The facility plan must be based on how students learn and the corresponding spaces that are required. Research facilities are also part of the equation. Everything should come together in a comprehensive plan where academic facilities and the exterior environment blend in a seamless whole.

According to Lidsky, it is less expensive and quicker to change the outdoor environment than it is to implement many other changes. Installing WiFi, enhanced lighting, creating an outdoor classroom, or offering new gathering spaces with tables and chairs can easily be done during a summer session and can dramatically alter a campus.

“The goal is to link and make sense of a campus,” says Lidsky. “The pieces in the outdoor environment are critical to achieving success. It is relatively easy to provide active outdoor learning spaces that also tie a campus together.”

The Stetson Story
Lidsky’s firm completed a campus master plan for Stetson University in DeLand, FL, where enhancing the University’s exterior environment was a critical component.

“The look of a campus is vital to recruiting students,” says Dr. Wendy Libby, Stetson’s president. “I believe the outdoor environment should reflect an institution’s academic program, and that it sets a tone for what is inside.”

Stetson recently welcomed its largest freshman class to the DeLand campus, and Libby believes that the exterior environment played a key role in reaching this achievement. “When I came to Stetson as president, we began taking a hard look at our campus, which involved observing what our students were doing. Many things we noticed were taken into account when we did the plan.”

One thing that Libby and others noticed was a spot where students would hang their hammocks between trees to study or relax. With this as one reason, an additional 550 trees were installed on the campus to provide more opportunity for this activity, while also offering more shaded areas.

Other major alterations included changing all grass to Bermuda, which is heartier and requires less water, and trimming palm trees up to open more vistas. Old shrubs around buildings were removed and replaced with bike racks, benches, and/or trash receptacles that are part of a standardized program.

Libby says that Carol Johnson of Carol R. Johnson Associates, Inc., a landscape architecture firm headquartered in Boston, helped to define Stetson’s landscape in conjunction with the campus plan. “In some instances, we revealed beautiful architecture that had been hidden by our overgrown shrubs, and Carol’s attention to detail helped us to implement this and many other small measures that had a big impact,” she says. “Defining our landscape was every important.”

In the coming years Stetson will implement many other changes to the DeLand campus, including the construction of major buildings. Libby believes that while planning is critical, communicating the reasons for undertaking changes to the outdoor environment is also equally important. “We want all members of the Stetson community to understand the strategic value of our investment in this area,” she says. “I believe we have invested well in our campus and that we will benefit from that investment for many years.”

One Outdoor Classroom
Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, now sports an outdoor classroom as part of its “Learning Green” initiative, and the feature has been well received.

“Our philosophy is to make students global citizens, including living and learning in an environmentally sustainable way,” says Denise Cummings, associate professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at Rollins. “While we have many outdoor areas for students and classes to congregate, this is the first outdoor classroom that professors can reserve.”

The classroom is positioned across from a 55-acre nature preserve and overlooks Lake Virginia. Features include powder-coated quick-dry benches, a cement podium, a seat that resembles a Cyprus stump, and WiFi access. Benches on the back row are backed and front row benches are backless so that students can turn around and work together. Power outlets and a wheelchair platform are also part of the classroom.

“Faculty reserve the outdoor classroom at the beginning of each semester and an alternate indoor location is also reserved in case the weather is bad,” says Cummings. “The response by faculty and students regarding this investment has been very positive.”