Naturescape: A Vision for Open Space at the University of California, Irvine

by Dawn Dyer, RLA, ASLA, Kaleen Juarez, and Mia Lehrer, FASLA

Fig. 1. The UCI Naturescape Vision Plan aims to leverage and engage with the surrounding community to facilitate connectivity between the campus and regional, human, and natural, landscapes. Click here to view plan at a larger size. / image: Studio-MLA

The University of California, Irvine (UCI) has embarked on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to holistically re-imagine the campus’ open space resources, collectively referred to as Naturescape. The UCI Naturescape Vision was completed in 2018 to optimize the interconnected open spaces on the 1,500-acre campus to serve and enhance research, teaching, community engagement, wellness, and sustainability, and to reflect and capitalize on the region’s unique human and biological heritage.

In 2019, Studio-MLA led a six-month multi-disciplinary design effort to generate a Vision Plan to guide future development of campus connections and transform the campus’ central open space, Aldrich Park, into a thriving botanical garden. The design team included Grimshaw and Sherwood Engineers. Through a collaboration with the UCI Naturescape Advisory Committee, the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and the Physical & Environmental Planning Department, the Naturescape Vision Plan defines an innovative landscape-led approach to campus growth and development. The Plan builds the campus’ unique sense of place by completing “missing links”, extending the ecological spokes of the historic radial campus design into the surrounding protected natural areas, and works with community partners to create thoughtful connections to regional trails (Figure 1).

The central idea of the Vision Plan characterizes the campus as arboretum and living laboratory. With more than 24,000 trees on the 1,500-acre campus, UCI has been recognized as a Tree Campus USA since 2010. The Vision Plan builds upon this legacy by looking at succession to encourage diversity of species, increase canopy for shade, and reduce the heat island effect. The campus as arboretum becomes a pillar for the campus as living laboratory. The Vision Plan creates a framework for the campus to provide new opportunities for health and wellness, research, teaching, and interdisciplinary cross-pollination of the arts, engineering, and sciences.

Fig. 2. The UCI campus is 1,510 acres. Aldrich Park is the heart of the campus and the focus of the Naturescape Vision Plan. From Aldrich Park, the key campus connections radiate out to the community and surrounding natural preserves. Click here to view image at a larger size. / image: Studio-MLA

To fully implement the Naturescape Vision, stronger campus connections needed to be created and missing links in the open space network resolved. The Plan considers each connection an extraordinary opportunity to showcase UCI’s aspirations and to think about its landscape in a new way. The design process analyzed existing resources, activated under-utilized spaces, and created new opportunities to program and enhance the open space network. This includes parks, greenbelts, community gardens, interstitial spaces, trails, pathways, outdoor classrooms, field research sites, upland and wetland habitats, and urban outdoor spaces. To create this cohesive vision, the design team developed a kit of parts to identify the landscape assets and elements that reflect the ecological and educational goals of the university, including outdoor classrooms and gathering spaces, bioswales, interpretive signs, shade structures, exhibit spaces, gardens, decorative crosswalks, bicycle parking, food and information kiosks, and research plots. These landscape elements were applied to seven key connections, four of which were further developed for initial fundraising opportunities (Figures 2 and 3).

Fig. 3. Each of the four unique key campus connections is enhanced with a kit of parts including shade structures, overlooks, outdoor classrooms, interpretive signage, permeable paving, shade trees, gardens, and bioswales. / image: Studio-MLA

The first is the North Campus Health and Wellness Trail which links the Campus Core to the North Campus—the future home to clinical facilities, children’s health facilities, potential housing, and the proposed UCI Institute and Museum for California Art—through the 200-acre UC-operated San Joaquin Marsh Reserve. The one-mile pedestrian and bicycle path includes two outdoor classrooms, gateways with information kiosks, habitat towers, research plots, and shaded overlooks. The paths are designed to be open to the community with fencing to protect the sensitive marsh habitat. At the southern end of this trail, the San Diego Creek Bridge creates a seamless connection from the central campus to the Marsh. The Bridge further extends the Naturescape through native planting. A siphon below the bridge would replenish the marsh with water collected from the central campus. The San Diego Creek Bridge will be an iconic feature of the UCI Campus and a landmark to the region.

The Garden to San Diego Creek Connection links Aldrich Park to the San Diego Creek Bridge. This passage showcases urban sustainability with interpretive signage, bioswales, tree allées and increased permeable paving. The pathway ends with a shaded gathering area and outdoor classroom overlooking the San Joaquin Marsh.

The Ecological Preserve Trail connects the heart of the campus to the adjacent wildlands, bringing the campus community into direct contact with the local biological heritage. This linkage represents UCI’s lasting commitment to protect its vital natural resources for future generations and to strengthen regional recognition of this unique environment.

The Anteater Community Trail is the most suburban of the connections.  Surrounded by University housing, the two-mile streetscape expands the campus beyond its central core to the adjacent existing trails. When complete, it will be a showcase of sustainability to the region and a testing ground for research and interdisciplinary teaching. Each of these unique trails, landscape elements, outdoor classrooms, overlooks, gathering areas, and trail improvements is carefully designed to be light on the land to protect this sensitive habitat. The trails will include permeable paving, vegetated swales, native and drought tolerant planting, improved bicycle paths, a community garden, and shaded respite areas.

Activity centers are an important feature of Naturescape. A series of outdoor classrooms are a vital element in the kit of parts for each connection. These spaces provide new opportunities for faculty and students to gather, learn, and collaborate in an environment outside of the traditional classroom. The outdoor classrooms are equipped to perform as high-amenity teaching spaces and are flexible enough to host events or act as informal meeting spaces.

Fig. 4. The Aldrich Park Botanical Garden concept serves campus research, teaching, community engagement, wellness, and sustainability. Click here to view image at a larger size. / image: Studio-MLA

While the campus connections are the arteries of Naturescape, Aldrich Park Botanical Garden is its heart. Aldrich Park is a much beloved 16-acre passive park, filled with more than 53 varieties of trees, wonderfully rolling hills, and expansive lawns. The concept design for the transformation of Aldrich Park to a botanical garden links research, ecology, hydrology, wellness, and art through the park and reaches these systems radially outwards into the main campus (Figure 4). The botanical garden celebrates the Mediterranean Biome and highlights the biodiversity of the California Floristic Province in the California Garden. The four additional Mediterranean biome gardens, including the Western Cape, Chilean, Mediterranean, and Australian, flank both sides of the California Garden. Their placement and proximities relate to the unique conditions of these areas with similar exposures and topography conditions of the biomes themselves (Figures 5 and 6).

Fig. 5. Aldrich Park Botanical Garden transforms UCI’s central park to support the Naturescape goal of reflecting and capitalizing on the unique human and biological heritage of the region. Click here to view image at a larger size. / image: Studio-MLA
Fig. 6. Aldrich Park Botanical Garden view of the ephemeral stream and Gateway Overlook from the Chilean Garden pathway. / image: Studio-MLA

The Naturescape Vision Plan advances UCI’s sustainability goals through a series of strategic landscape measures including innovative water conservation methods, permaculture practices, reduced heat island, regenerative ecological design, and enhanced biodiversity. Collaborating on these strategies with UCI’s academic community increases the pedagogical opportunities for scientific and practice-based learning and increases opportunities for quantifiable metric-based research. By celebrating the unique biological heritage of the region, Naturescape inspires the campus and the regional community to be stewards of the land.

Dawn Dyer, RLA, ASLA, AIA, LEED AP, is a Senior Associate, Kaleen Juarez is an Associate, and Mia Lehrer, FASLA, is president and founder of Studio-MLA.

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