How Colleges Can Take Advantage of Outdoor Spaces to Expand Campus Activity

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The leader in landscape and architectural design says colleges can boost their image by opening their pallets to the outdoors.

Landscape and design of the Nova Southeastern University campus in Florida (Photos by Hawkins International Content Studio)

“Asphalt terrain is such a waste of space. The earth is very precious and precious. As landscape architects and urban planners, this is our mantra: don’t play with the earth. If we take care of it, he will take care of us. – Kona Gray

Kona Gray is a Landscape Architect and Director of EDSA, which is responsible for some of the most unique designs in the world, including Atlantis Paradise Island, Savannah Streetscapes, the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas and many beautiful hotels and islands in Dubai. He has also creatively reshaped and refined some vibrant campuses, including two beauties in South Florida – Nova Southeastern University and Florida International University.

Although close to Miami and Fort Lauderdale and with high-priced space, each has alluring outdoor spaces – a key during the COVID-19 pandemic – where cabins, covered patios, walkways and decks offer dynamic yet relaxing spaces for administrators, students and faculty to come together.

For establishments that lack resort-like amenities or are crippled by campus traffic, an integrated makeover may be in order. The Society for College and University Planning emphasizes the importance of the use of space by institutions to achieve their strategic and academic goals. SCUP states in its guidelines that “a campus can be rewarding. It can be inviting. It can be stimulating. It can be the physical manifestation of an institution’s mission, a reminder of the promise and potential waiting to be unleashed.

Coherent campus planning and a long-term vision can ensure they keep pace with trends and meet student needs. Gray says bringing these outdoor spaces to life is one way for colleges to stand out, now and in the future.

University affairs sat down with Gray to get his take on exterior design trends and some of the key things colleges can overlook when redesigning these spaces:

Where are campuses going with their design, especially in this era of COVID?

The first thing we were able to do on many of the college campuses we serve was to help re-emphasize the spaces between buildings. This trend has actually accelerated due to COVID.

Universities have also relied on parking lots right next to buildings. [We said] “Why don’t you do away with this parking lot and create a place or a gathering place for the students?” Or create a small amphitheater where you can maximize some teaching opportunities. Maybe you are in a hurry for space inside, but if you use this outdoor amphitheater you can actually get there without having to build a new building.

We also go to flexible spaces outside, where you can use a space for morning yoga, then for a classroom, then later in the day for an assembly.

Kona Gray, Director at EDSA

What are some of the biggest design challenges you’ve encountered and solutions?

The big challenges are weather, technology and access to electricity. In the case of the weather, instead of building between $ 400 and $ 500 a foot for a new building, you can build a small lodge that allows you to be inside while still retaining that outdoor feel. We recommend that you use outdoor tents to allow activities to take place. Sometimes these are temporary but end up being more permanent. Even those who live in northern climates realize that it can get cold, but you can use heaters.

Our customers have real world issues, including COVID. The back-to-school push depended on the need to bring people together safely. How to space them out, especially on already overcrowded campuses?

The simple things are the challenges. Have a strong Wi-Fi connection throughout your campus. Have spaces that allow you to connect. The idea of ​​outdoor classrooms, one thing missing is all that goes with it: outdoor writing utensils, white or blackboards, having access to the toilet. It’s the little things that sometimes get overlooked.

Cost is always a consideration for colleges and universities. Have you seen a reduction in expenses? That doesn’t appear to be the case, with construction projects and a new exterior design unfolding throughout the pandemic.

Universities and colleges compete for the same organizations. With the advent of online resources, they have another bite in their market share. Many students say, “I don’t have to be on a college campus. I can do this from home, especially when half of their lessons are held virtually. So the bulb goes out. What’s the value here? What am I spending money on? Campuses are being built and continue to move forward.

Students are looking for residences of a much higher standard than they were in the past: resort-style pools, amenities, activities for them. Because it’s not just about learning. It’s about socializing and wanting to be in a pleasant space. The whole idea of ​​the study modules, stemming from the idea of ​​the cabin, really resonated with many of our customers. We see this as a major trend for the future. We all remember when we went to college when it wasn’t so good. This is not where the universities are going now. Much of this is demand driven.

Besides buildings or structures, what consideration is given to walkways, pathways, plantations, and elements that connect their campus in a modern way?

The elements that make up a landscape are very important: furniture, places of rest and relaxation, good lighting. We know that when prospective students go to a campus, they come back and check it out at certain times of the day.

And then simple circulation. We want to make sure it’s easy to get around, easy to understand where you are. It’s easy to see the nodes of activity where people congregate – basic campus planning to locate spaces between buildings where people congregate, but also where people intersect, where you’ll see your friend on the ground. way to your next class, or you ‘I can catch a teacher when he leaves class and has a few more opportunities to talk to him. Make it more accessible on foot – the traditional university setting, when you see people getting into the quad. Look at Harvard, that’s why Harvard Yard is so monumental. These types of spaces are really important.

What about using bridges or elevated walkways both as design elements and to facilitate movement?

We always tell customers, if you’re going to build a bridge, schedule it. Do something with that space so that the bridge becomes wide enough that you can actually organize activities on it, like The High Line in New York City, where you have an elevated park on your campus. It’s a great idea that I’m sure a lot of universities have overlooked. They just think, we have to get the students from here to there. In some of our master plans we’ve promoted land bridges and things of that nature, allowing more activity to happen as you go through traffic. It’s expensive, but at the same time, if you schedule it, you can monetize it.

The High Line in New York (Simon Bok / Unsplash)

We’ve seen some really innovative uses of outdoor spaces on urban campuses over the past few years. What can the city’s colleges do to take advantage of their lack of space?

An institution that grants land has hundreds of thousands of acres compared to an urban campus that has maybe 20. That means your spaces become all the more important. Find ways to wrap these courses between the spaces. Enjoy your roofs, what we call the fifth facade. Many cities, especially New York and Chicago, really benefit from rooftop terraces. This is a wonderful opportunity for the classrooms that come out of these buildings. These buildings aren’t just indoors. You have the option of being outside. But you have to think vertical. You cannot go horizontal in these urban conditions.

Are many colleges taking advantage of the roofs they have?

Not as much as you might think. We are members of the Society for College and University Planning. Some of the data that I’ve seen on these urban campuses hasn’t addressed that. I think I could write a white paper on this soon!

What about other elements where the campus design breaks the norm?

The Nova Southeastern space has cabins. Their main student center has a restaurant called Flight Deck, and outside we have set up a bar-kitchen area for students to relax, watch games and just hang out. We will continue to see this. Outdoor seating areas for activities and meals are definitely the way to go. Having a Starbucks-like situation on your campus where you have a large outdoor patio where people can relax, have coffee, and study makes a big difference. I studied at the University of Georgia, and Athens is a great city center for a university – there are cafes and terraces everywhere. Students study all day or just socialize. This is how you build this business.

What about university residences? What looks different now than 10-15 years ago?

They are not the same. They are really high end. The Res Hall that we completed at Florida International University (above) is really great – they actually raised the building up in parts so you have social rooms that open up to a covered outdoor space but open to the sides. So ping pong, table football, small lounge areas. It’s amazing and the students love it. We create a lot of spaces with residences that allow students to want to be there. From a financial standpoint, rehab rooms sometimes cost as much as tuition. It is really a major economic driver for universities. The main goal is to have you on campus so that you can truly experience college life. But for commuters, they also need this space. On many campuses, we’ve designed spaces where people who drive can have a place to relax, so they don’t just get in their cars and go.


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