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. 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.

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