Facilities (Campus Spaces)

An Award-Winning Landscape

campus landscape


Campus decision makers, wherever they are and whatever the goals of their institution, strive for the very best possible outdoor spaces. Yet there are many moving parts to the process of envisioning, coordinating, managing, and implementing a complex, high-profile project of this nature. Vision is the starting point, and can turn overlooked outdoor spaces into coveted, bustling places of merit.

In Durham, NC, a case in point is Duke University’s multi-project West Quad initiative, the landscape of which the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Society for College and University Planning both recognized with awards in 2018. The Olmsted Brothers and Julian Abele of Horace Trumbauer Architects designed Duke’s West Quad in the 1920s. Broad paths lined with majestic willow oaks were created in order to frame central lawn panels and provide the quad scale and gravitas. While the quad remained the site of significant institutional gatherings and day-to-day student life for nearly a century, over time, overuse and the lack of restorative maintenance practices degraded the landscape’s appearance and performance. ASLA cited how the new landscape design—with its pathways, plantings, spaces, and furnishings—ties together the projects and transformed underused areas into “an animated campus center.” The award also cites, among other things, how the plan rejuvenates the site’s legacy oaks, provides new trees and planting beds, manages stormwater, and by combining historic and contemporary elements, sensitively relates to, and brings forward, architecture on Duke’s West Campus.

campus landscape


A NEW LANDSCAPE TAKES ROOT. On Duke University’s west campus, a transformation has improved functionality of the quad, retaining its historic structure and familiar spatial hierarchy while responding to and building upon the way students live and today’s campuses function. The university was encouraged to enact an organic landscape maintenance regime, building soils biology and structure to enhance resilience, with the goal of reducing maintenance inputs over time.

Mark Hough, university landscape architect for Duke, shared insights about the process, for which he served as the university’s lead designer, working closely with consultant landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand of Cambridge, MA.

Crown Commons

One of the features, Crown Commons, exemplifies what makes the wider landscape compelling. It is rejuvenated outdoor space that grew out of nearby projects in recent years, including restorations to a library, student union, a chapel, and the Brodhead Center for Campus Life. There are also renovations to residence halls on the quad; the buildings are slated to open in August 2019, Hough says. As noted by ASLA, all of the efforts are conceptually joined together with the landscape.

The site has a distinctive bridge pavilion that connects the Abele Julian quad and the Crown Commons, creating a smooth flow between spots that sit at different elevations due to the steep grades of the campus topography. Duke retained and worked closely with a diverse team—including the aforementioned landscape architect consultant; Grimshaw, the architect of the Brodhead project; bridge architect James Carpenter Design Associates; engineers; landscape contractors; and an irrigation consultant—to create an outdoor space that Hough describes as “a perfect example of taking a nothing space and turning it into something contributory. Something that is now the student heart of the campus.”

The key was to create a bridge structure “as thin and transparent as possible,” or a “light and airy” feature, Hough says, in order to “maximize the functionality and comfort of the space beneath.” The configuration leaves vistas open; above, too, via glass wells punched through the deck of the bridge, to let in dappled sunlight while providing shade. In fair weather, students gather and lounge there, animating the space with foot traffic and casual interactions.

What Worked

Hough, who has been at the university for about 20 years, says the idea of stewardship is important. In other words, it matters to be able to “understand the place intimately,” he explains, and to recognize “what makes a Duke landscape a Duke landscape. When you hire a consultant, you look for designers who you believe will fit into an aesthetic that’s been is established.” Bringing such an aesthetic forward requires staying true to campus ideals.

campus landscape


It turned out to be a good match, with Hough admiring the landscape architect’s “aesthetic and their approach to cultural landscape. They understand how you can use historic materials in contemporary ways and make it feel very appropriate to the place.”

On another note, projects involving important landscape components require a healthy balance between architecture and landscape architecture, Hough explains. In his view, it takes a landscape architect with gravitas and advocacy from within an institution as a project unfolds.

Outdoor Trends

Duke’s project reflects some outdoor space trends Hough is seeing on campuses today. It has also been ahead of the curve in some respects, he believes.

For example, such campus projects today, and for at least the past 10 years or so, must address stormwater, native plant, and sustainability issues, with such fundamental matters impacting how we discuss outdoor spaces today, he says. Crown Commons has a large cistern underneath the plaza and granite cobble strips that “capture stormwater responsibly,” Hough explains, pointing out that such functions need to be expressed on the surface to comport well with their surroundings.

campus landscape


On the other hand, “we were a little ahead of the trend of the idea of flexible spaces with movable furniture,” he says. Parks have been doing this for some time. Yet “on campuses, there is a reticence about moveable furniture. We decided that moveable furniture was the best. Crown Commons is really all about how to maximize the program, and toward that end, Adirondack chairs and bistro-table-and-chair sets—such sets have been used by Duke for some time—were added, to help foster varied functions. “It’s about creating a full set of spaces that people can use for a whole lot of things. And I think that’s increasingly a trend, to create flexible outdoor spaces,” says Hough.

Location, Location, Location

“You can’t overemphasize the importance of adjacencies. This site is the crossroads of the campus in a sense,” Hough says, noting that the dining hall, student center, the chapel, and the residence halls are all in the immediate vicinity at the center of the campus.

The commons and the wider West Campus array boil down to providing outdoor places for students to relax, gather, eat, and use their devices, all in a setting that is social but also functional. As Hough adds, “What the project did was take a logical site and turned it into a place where students want to be.”


Suggestions for campus decision makers exploring how to transform outdoor spaces on their campuses include:

  • Advocate. Find and collaborate with advocates from within the administration. Who across your campus believes in the potential of great outdoor spaces to achieve institutional goals and enhance student life?
  • Cite examples. Go back and examine a positive, groundbreaking outdoor project or key space on your campus. How did the space transform a sector of campus? As Hough says, such spaces are frequently out there and can serve in some respects as models, as in: “Look what you can get from it.”
  • Point out the importance of landscape. Share how landscape is an essential aspect of new and renovated building projects.
  • Have a plan. “Establish a baseline in quality in terms of finishes and aesthetics because it sets the bar,” Hough adds.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management July/August 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.