How can resiliency shape places of learning? Mikyoung Kim and Ian Downing explore this question and more in a guest post on ASLA’s blog, The Field

As recent hurricane seasons remind us, new global weather patterns continue to wreak havoc at an alarming pace on our neighborhoods and the environment. For thousands of Americans, these storm patterns have caused large scale damage and humanitarian disasters that have had long lasting impacts on communities large and small.

As landscape architects, these issues of resiliency and stormwater management are at the forefront of our thinking. We must rethink new, innovative ways of designing for these large scale, pressing ecological and climatological issues that our planet faces. Our landscapes are in crisis—much of which has been accelerated by human activity. In considering the future of campus design, these issues of resiliency are at the forefront of university campus planning and design. Consider the possibility that this educational typology of landscape design could become a forum for learning and engagement while restoring the environment and creating engaging and unique places just to hang out.

A Holistic Approach to Designing for Resiliency

We must craft resilient designs that will not only enrich the living and working experiences for campus communities, but also prepare colleges and universities to anticipate and respond to an uncertain climate future. Our firm is focused on understanding the science of resiliency and utilizing that as the foundation of the tapestry that is landscape architecture. This integration of science with the social and cultural art of landscape architecture is our challenge—to partner with universities to create learning environments that will thrive for decades to come.

Designing for campus resiliency calls for a holistic approach. Higher education institutes tend to operate at large scales, across complex geographies and systems, and with distributed networks of people. Such environments need localized, human-scale interventions, especially given their communities’ diverse needs and capabilities. Thoughtful solutions enable us to enliven the pedestrian experience for everyone, while also creating cultural and social destinations within the landscape.

With careful planning, designing with resiliency in mind should transcend pure functionality of stormwater management. These are places that should invite us to engage in an artful and memorable way in campus placemaking. A complex and varied toolkit for designing these landscapes can also help to create new identities for our campuses that reflect the unique nature of each college and university.

A Closer Look at Preparing for Storms: the Beauty of Skillful Stormwater Management

Like many other communities, campuses nationwide are experiencing annual increases in rainfall intensity and more extreme storm events. Stormwater management has emerged as essential to planning a climate-resilient campus.

Weaving stormwater solutions throughout a landscape offers many benefits, specifically:

    1. Retaining and treating water close to its source point distributes a storm’s impact across a site. Lessening the strain on any single area boosts the health of the system overall.
    2. Deferring the timing of the water entering the system helps set the flow’s pace.
    3. Activating natural infiltration processes reduces the quantity of water captured by traditional stormwater infrastructure.
    4. Teaching students, faculty, staff, and administrators that the landscape is an evolving condition and that everyone can do their part in addressing large scale resiliency issues.

Examples abound of universities already practicing these green strategies for stormwater management. Our neighbor, Harvard University, aims to reduce their water use thirty percent by 2020. To achieve their goal, they recently installed a 66,000-gallon rainwater collection tank that will halve irrigation water use while also lessening stormwater overflow during severe weather events. Northeastern University is also committed to a new vision for their campus which celebrates rain gardens and stormwater detention systems in holistic ways.

These New England campus stormwater stories shows us ways in which university quadrangles can move away from ornamental lawns to working landscapes that restore and teach us about the environment. Even with the positive changes that we’ve seen, we’ve found that many in higher education are only aware of a fraction of the design changes they could make to dramatically increase their readiness for climate change.

Eight Inspired Strategies to Consider Adapting for Your Campus’ Open Space

Here are eight important typologies of adaptive landscapes we’re seeing across the country that we hope will become the new normal in campus design:

  1. Green roofs: Popularized over the past decade, green roofs not only reduce the heat island effect, but also enchant students and faculty with their garden-like atmosphere. Much more than just a pretty feature, green roofs reduce overall water usage and offset stormwater, slowing its flow. In these ways, they balance out campus environmental systems.
  2. Rain gardens: We love the trend we’re seeing of introducing smaller, more localized rain gardens to help with stormwater collection. We recently introduced a small rain garden for the entry plaza at the University of Chicago’s Lab School and are currently designing urban stormwater collection gardens at Emerson College and Northeastern University. This type of rain garden allows runoff to enter the rain garden and any overflow to be redirected to the campus-wide stormwater infrastructure.
  3. Native and non-invasive plants: Although we believe that the concept of native planting is an evolving and transforming condition given the rapid changes in the hardiness zone allocations, we think it’s very important to be mindful of planting systems that are diverse and integrate a new definition of wild and native planting strategies. Not only can you let your clients know that native plants save money and water by being able to hold water better than most non-native plants, but they’re also better at naturally adapting to current local weather conditions and therefore often require less maintenance and pesticides. But most importantly, native plants help restore natural habitats and increase the overall resiliency of a campus for the future when considering long term planning. Another goal in our work is to minimize the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, working to reduce environmental impact through a new way of looking at maintenance on college campuses.
  4. Bioretention swales: These shallow depressions nurture plant life and capture, treat, and infiltrate stormwater runoff as it moves downstream. As flood zones in and around universities continually expand, they could prove an integral part of any sustainably designed campus. Though perhaps under the radar as a strategy, they deserve recognition for the value they quietly contribute. We created these bioretention swales in a number of projects, including various campuses at the University of Massachusetts, along pathways highlighting entrances with these quiet and interesting planted stone gardens.
  5. Stormwater retention: An obvious element for any new design, stormwater retention can pose some challenges for existing buildings, especially when working with aging structures. With retrofitting, creativity really comes into play. At the Rogers Environmental Studies Magnet School, our team used the existing foundation as a basin, recycling the foundation walls to create a centralized stormwater collection area. Doing so allowed us to embrace the aging structure while also reducing water runoff on campus overall.
  6. Permeable pavement: Adding permeable pavement for sidewalks, parking, and other surfaces presents one of the easiest choices to make when creating a resilient space. It allows stormwater runoff to filter through voids in the pavement surface into an underlying stone reservoir, which temporarily stores and ultimately infiltrates the water.
  7. Designing site grading to store and direct rainfall: Strategic site grading offers an opportunity for aesthetic innovation, beyond its functional benefits. Artfully altering a site’s topology can mediate people’s experience traversing the ground, while also improving stormwater management.
  8. Time-share opportunities: Flexible areas can accommodate larger-scale storm events, but they can also accommodate programming when not needed, providing flexibility and diversity of experiences depending on impact.

Committing to sustainable design can renew our sense of purpose and empathy in each moment, both in our hands-on practice and in our conversations and collaboration with those we serve. Though climate change and redefining campus planning feels daunting, it also challenges us to contribute better ideas and work that look to the future.

We are excited to see the inventive new ways in which designers and planners will create greener, more unexpected campus landscapes, defining new identities that move away from traditional notions of the campus green towards a future vision that is more process oriented, teaching everyone that the landscape is an evolving system that defines our future on the planet.