by Jennifer Seacrest
When the University of Nebraska-Lincoln asked for ideas to reimage a greenspace that would honor four U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture from Nebraska and reflect the historical and agrarian legacy of East Campus, the Olsson Studio and University steering committee decided to take it a step further.
Our team opted to design a space that would become an experience for students and faculty as well as for members of the greater Lincoln community. We wanted to create a space that was welcoming and useful that would give the university flexibility in terms of programming. Thus, every decision made was done through the lens of creating a unique and memorable experience for those who will use the space, engage students, and showcase the natural beauty of East Campus.
Legacy Plaza is located on UNL’s East Campus surrounded by the Food Industry Complex to the south, Dinsdale Family Learning Commons to the east, and the Nebraska East Union to the north. In 2013, the campus master plan identified the project as an opportunity to invest in civic infrastructure by creating “memorable, symbolic open spaces.” In addition, then-Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green challenged Campus Planning to use this 6.5-acre tract of land to honor four U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture from Nebraska. In doing so, the department wanted to integrate the space into the campus landscape and honor the agriculture roots of East Campus providing a home for the statues honoring the former Secretaries and naming the greenspace Legacy Plaza.
Former conceptual visioning plans sat dormant for four years. When renovations began on the Dinsdale Learning Commons and the East Union, the Legacy Plaza project suddenly had new life.
That’s when the Olsson Studio entered the picture.
The first thing the team did was conduct a site inventory and analysis and research the area. Our research also tapped into designs of the site created by UNL students within their design studios. We met often with the university steering committee to understand their aspirations, goals, and objectives.
During this process, it became clear that access to the space (and nearby buildings) and circulation of people would be crucial for creating a welcoming environment. This gave us the opportunity to rethink what the space could be used for and develop it as an amenity that students, faculty, and visitors could enjoy.
While it was not part of the initial scope of the project, the Olsson team felt it was important to take a deeper dive into several circulation alternatives which prioritized internal pedestrian circulation and moving vehicular, service, and emergency circulation to the perimeter. After vetting and refining these ideas with the steering committee and other stakeholders, we developed three unique conceptual alternatives based on the preferred circulation pattern. Once again, the design team and steering committee vetted and refined the concepts through a collaborative and interactive working session. During the session, we explored merging ideas and refinement of the concepts so that a consensus-built preferred plan could be realized.
The final design called for removing a roadway from the core of the campus to allow opening the green space and creating opportunities for intentional connections to surrounding buildings. The design transforms the former back of buildings into “front doors” while providing amenity space where students and members of the greater community can sit, stand, and relax. Terraces with event provisions were created to serve as stages during events for students or the community. Pockets were created for activities in which students can learn, get together with friends, and just relax.
Activity pockets or rooms became a key element of the design because most of the majors offered on East Campus are focused on being outdoors, in the fields of agriculture sciences, natural resources, and agronomy and horticulture.
With teaching and engagement evolving as a key element of the project, the university and design team were able to engage students and faculty in the project process. Following the Legacy Plaza Master Plan development, the design team hosted a walk with students to discuss the design process, design outcomes, and implementation. Following this walk, the students were able to re-explore the space as part of a capstone project that involved members of the steering committee and university administrators. The student plans again generated some great ideas, and some are currently being incorporated into the ongoing design development.
Once all phases of the project are complete, Legacy Plaza will represent a complete overhaul of the central greenspace of UNL’s East Campus, transforming a once underutilized area into the heart of the campus community and meeting the original goal of creating a resource for teaching and engagement with UNL students and the Lincoln community.
Jennifer Heeney Seacrest is a Creative Technical Leader at Olsson Design Studio in Lincoln, Nebraska.