University Landscape Architects Unite!

Crown Commons at Duke University, designed by Reed Hilderbrand / image: Mark Hough

Duke University (along with me, its resident landscape architect) recently served as host for the inaugural conference of the newly formed Association of University Landscape Architects. For several beautiful, albeit unseasonably warm, days toward the end of April, a group of 25 landscape architects representing 22 universities from across the country joined together to share ideas, experiences, and best practices unique to our niche segment of the profession.

Creating such a group is something I have been pondering for about a decade now. Several of us—landscape architects working on the client side in university planning/design offices—have been running into each other for many years at ASLA Annual Meetings and Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) conferences. We would often find ourselves lamenting the lack of content specific to what we do. We could find a campus tour here and there, and perhaps a couple of pertinent education sessions tucked into an otherwise crowded slate, but the time we would spend together discussing common issues proved most applicable and valuable to our specific work. The idea that we could form some version of an association was floated around at various times and was consistently met with near universal enthusiasm.

Abele Quad at Duke University, designed by the Olmsted Brothers, restoration design by Reed Hilderbrand / image: Mark Hough
Abele Quad at Duke University, designed by the Olmsted Brothers, restoration design by Reed Hilderbrand / image: Mark Hough

The event in April included education sessions, social functions, and tours of both the Duke campus and that of its neighbor down the road, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Duke, the group explored the historic heart of the campus, which was designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm and has recently undergone a complete restoration led by Reed Hilderbrand. We also toured a couple other spaces designed by that firm, along with recent projects by OLIN, Nelson Byrd Woltz, and Hargreaves Associates, as well as the site of a future sculpture park being designed by West 8. Time was also spent in the 55-acre Sarah P. Duke Gardens, which is located in the heart of the campus and revolves around its iconic terrace garden designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman.

Terrace Garden in Duke Gardens, designed by Ellen Shipman / image: Mark Hough

The tours of Duke supported two overarching themes related to its campus: the ways in which the layering of multiple projects with multiple consultants can transform a campus and the quality of its landscape, and the use of green infrastructure to enhance campus placemaking. Focus was placed on a six-acre stormwater reclamation pond that sits within a twelve-acre landscape designed by NBW. The pond, which serves as a supply source for the school’s largest chilled water plant, allows the university to use 100 million fewer gallons of potable water each year. The landscape design supports the pond’s role as a vital utility while also contributing to student life, the ecological health of the campus, and the pedagogical mission of the school.

Duke Pond at Duke University, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz / image: Mark Hough

Among the other education sessions:

Gary Brown, FASLA, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented the school’s recent master plan, which uses the campus landscape and green infrastructure as the guiding forces to organize and prioritize future development. The plan, which was supported by SmithGroup-JJR and Hoerr Schaudt, boosts an institutional need for new green spaces, plazas, and social gathering spaces across the campus. The plan also recommends increased engagement with the beautiful Lake Mendota, which borders the university property and makes it one of the picturesque campuses in the country. The idea that such a large and important school could place so much value on its landscape was inspiring.

Kristine Kenney, ASLA, from the University of Washington, discussed the Campus Landscape Framework Plan she completed with the help of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The plan was developed to more effectively communicate the value of the campus setting in supporting the mission of the university, and was the most thorough documentation and evaluation of the campus landscape ever undertaken. The framework addresses the campus ecology, circulation system, mosaic of open space typologies, and historic legacy, and then establishes case study-based strategies for proper stewardship of the landscape over time. She discussed how a recent project designed by OLIN has successfully used the plan to inform their design, which will sustain and enhance the campus experience for generations to enjoy.

Laura Tenny, ASLA, from MIT, presented progress on the school’s Sustainable Campus Stormwater and Landscape Ecology Framework Plan, in collaboration with Nitsch Engineering, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Level Infrastructure. She framed her talk by pointing out that MIT’s relatively small and very urban campus is quite different from the much larger, tree-covered campuses we had been discussing. She described how the plan imagines how the urban landscape can be treated as a living infrastructure system that provides multiple benefits. The university has not traditionally focused on the beauty of its campus landscape, with exceptions such as the gorgeous and iconic Killian Court at its historic center—a landscape that has undergone recent renewal with the help of Stephen Stimson Associates. Tenny said she is encouraged by the way this sustainability initiative is making a case for how site contributes to climate resiliency, sustainability, and campus life.

Cathy Blake, FASLA, from Stanford, talked about promises, successes, and pitfalls associated with becoming a “sustainable campus.” She presented Stanford’s impressive record on addressing water needs, fostering alternative transit, and creating environmentally responsible landscapes, all while restoring the original vision established by Fredrick Law Olmsted. She did not shy away from criticizing what can often be zealous reactions to things such as the use of irrigation and planting lawn on campus, arguing there needs to be more practical discussions that balance the various needs for the appearance, safety, and programmatic use of the campus landscape. The talk led to a lot of discussion about how to deal with a preponderance of bikes on campus—something to which Stanford has become a model.

West Campus Plaza at Duke University, designed by Hargreaves Associates / image: Mark Hough
West Campus Plaza at Duke University, designed by Hargreaves Associates / image: Mark Hough

As one might expect, we spent a lot of time talking about collaborations with design consultants. It has been frequently suggested to me (usually by people working for private firms) that this group should be expanded to include any landscape architect who works on or for campuses, including consultants. As expected, however, everyone at the conference seemed to appreciate its focused nature. It is always refreshing to hear about projects from the owner perspective, and there are not a lot of opportunities to do so.

Those of us who work as stewards for these campuses see the design of spaces through a different lens and our presentations usually reflect a unique and often shared set of goals and criteria. Whenever we meet, either as a pair or as part of a group, we are apt to dive into lengthy discussions about things like process, funding, operations, and maintenance—topics that are pertinent to what we do but might not be very interesting to others. It is fun to talk about design projects, but that is just one part of what most of us do as university landscape architects.

The attendees of the inaugural conference of the Association of University Landscape Architects at Duke University / image: Laura Tenny

By the end, the conference and the camaraderie it instilled were immensely rewarding. No matter how big or small, public or private, richly endowed or not, the issues faced by our schools are inevitably more aligned than not and the opportunity to meet in person and trade stories is invaluable. I think we all left feeling recharged within the little, and often ignored, microcosm of the larger profession we share. No sooner had we shut the books on this one than we started asking ourselves where we should go next.

by Mark Hough, FASLA, University Landscape Architect, Duke University

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