Engaging On-Campus Communities with Landscape Design

A private college or university may offer an amazing education, a desirable location, and buildings that are functional and beautiful—but for prospective students, the failure to adequately address landscaping on campus grounds can leave a lasting and harmful impression. Worse still, campus grounds that are either too bare or cluttered can dissuade current students from spending time on campus when they are not in class.

We want our campuses to be exciting, to be buzzing with activity. “Campus life”—this phrase—suggests that campus is more than a learning environment; it is a hub of social interaction, a space for collaboration and memory-making. Landscaping can detrimentally impact campus life, just as it can vastly improve it.

Students, faculty, and staff alike should be able to navigate between buildings on campus safely and without any confusion or obstacle, and landscaping plays a key role in this. But even a clean and navigable campus can represent a missed opportunity, and landscape design can transform an otherwise functional but non-descript outdoor space into one that entices the campus community to use it in a variety of ways.

We want our outdoor spaces to become an obvious destination for relaxation, study, sports, as well as other recreational activities, whether frisbee on the quad or a game of cornhole before a football game. Moreover, we want a campus landscape that can double as a space for outdoor learning, where students in a drawing course can comfortably sit and sketch a path of oak trees, or where students can learn from hands-on science gardens.

The strategic use of landscape design can work to unify campus aesthetics, and ideally it also aligns with an institution’s identity and core values. If this seems elusive or unlikely, look no further than the lush greenery and fertile, tucked-away gardens on the campus of College of the Atlantic, all of which align beautifully with the institution’s commitment to sustainability.

Another example is Connecticut College, whose campus is spaced within a dense, well-managed New England landscape, one reminiscent of a small town rather than a traditional campus. The use of outdoor space remains consistent with the institution’s vision of creating an inclusive, tight-knit community. Elon University, for its part, aims to transform the mind, body, and spirit of its students, and the campus grounds are equipped accordingly with transcendent beauty, that which includes the 56-acre Elon University Forest, a land preserve used as a teaching resource and research site.

Landscaping is a major contributor to the look and feel of any campus. One can learn so much from College of the Atlantic, Connecticut College, and Elon University, since each institution serves as a model for how landscaping can be used not merely to engage on-campus communities but to create sustainable and beautiful outdoor spaces.

Sustainability, Landscaping, and Fertile Gardens at College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic (COA) is located in Bar Harbor, a town on Mount Desert Island of Maine. This very small liberal arts college of approximately 350 students offers a BA solely in the field of human ecology, an interdisciplinary approach to studying the relations between humans and their natural, cultural, built, and technological environments. Students are given the freedom (and the responsibility) to build their own curriculum, and no two students approach the degree in exactly the same way.

Such an interdisciplinary approach to learning reflects the open-minded, flexible ethos of COA, in which students are encouraged to explore the interconnectedness of topics—a student, for instance, may be simultaneously drawn to Romantic poetry, ecocritical theory, and botany, and then pursue a senior project that incorporates knowledge of both the natural sciences and the humanities.

The grounds of COA are an ideal setting for interdisciplinary study. The campus consists of 37 acres on Frenchman Bay, and is home to two organic farms, two off-shore island research stations, and a 100-acre protected area. The farms are living laboratories for classes and student research, and they supply the dining hall with organic produce, eggs, and meat. The offshore island properties include the Alice Eno Field Research Station on Great Duck Island, where students conduct studies on Leach’s storm petrels, guillemots, gulls, sparrows, and other fields of natural history. The Edward McCormick Blair Research station on Mount Desert Rock is a center for the study of marine mammals and oceanography.

Landscaping the campus of COA is managed in an ecologically sensitive manner, without the use of synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. This is congruent with the overarching campus goals of promoting sustainability, biodiversity, and educational opportunity. Similarly, the tucked-away gardens of COA are an integral part of the campus landscape. There is an organic garden situated at the north end of campus, one with plots available to students on a first-come, first-serve basis. The community garden teaches students the values of self-reliance, communal work, and the virtues of sharing food.

One can then exit the community garden by walking up a path to a short set of stairs and into the Newlins Gardens, a lovely space designed for relaxation and quiet. The Beatrix Farrand Garden was created in 1928 by the celebrated garden designer of the same name. It includes a formal sequence of rock-walled “rooms,” each offering space for quiet study and intimate conversation. The unique stone walls, staircases, and hedges that define these spaces give visitors a sense of the designer’s skill. Moreover, several of the original rose bushes have survived, and a perennial border gives a sampling of plants that Farrand typically used in her garden designs.

COA is also home to Turrets Seaside Garden. Eamonn Hutton, who took on the restoration of the 4000-square-foot garden as his senior project in 2005, described it in the following manner: “A large granite bench overlooks [the garden]. In the distance, a string of islands stretches across Frenchman Bay to Shoodic Peninsula. Above the garden stands the historic The Turrets.

The campus extends uphill, but the garden, concealed behind The Turrets, has a sunken, secluded atmosphere.” Hutton recreated the formal bedded-out pattern of the garden but elected to plant material that would require less maintenance and not appeal to the deer that frequent campus. Using subtle pinks, purples, and blue-grey tones of lavender, astilbe, fairy roses, nepeta, and Siberian iris, Hutton followed a color scheme akin to that of the blue-grey gardens described by Gertrude Jekyll, a noted garden designer. The space is also equipped with a central fountain.

At COA’s Sunken Garden, brick pathways circle through what was once a walled Italian garden, lined with stone benches and balustrades. In 1980, COA student Claire Verdier restored the garden as her very own senior project. She planted ornamental shrubs and flowers, many of which are still present today. In the spring of 2009, two seniors replaced the western wall of the garden, which had deteriorated, and they did so with terraced retaining walls.

They also removed invasive species and replanted the overgrown flowerbeds with annuals and perennials. The COA Gardening Club further restored the space in 2015, and did so by creating a sustainable, low-maintenance, edible garden that would educate the community and also provide food for people, birds, and insects.

The Versatile Landscape of Connecticut College

Connecticut College, located in the seaport city of New London, Connecticut, was originally established in 1911 as a college for women. During its first years as an institution, a long-term project of campus beautification was implemented, and this was managed through ambitious and thoughtful plantings. Many unusual species still exist today on the 750-acre campus, which is maintained with minimal use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Planted throughout this gorgeous campus are 420 different types of woody plants represented by over 1,300 trees, approximately 2,100 shrubs, and 7 vines. Some trees of interest include the Franklin tree, a Japanese pagoda tree, Chinese witch hazel, among many others. Connecticut College is understandably proud of its on-site plant species, and anyone can explore an interactive map of the trees in the Campus Collection or search the Arboretum’s living collections database.

Also available on campus is the Lillian Niederman Garden, an open landscape dominated by meadow grasses and flowers, as well as scattered drifts of trees and shrubs. Interestingly, the garden is a fine example of what occurs after agricultural abandonment. It is a signature landscape of New England, reflecting both the agricultural and ecological heritage of the region. Old field habitats have become increasingly rare, a most unfortunate development since they are crucial to the survival of many species of insects, mammals, and birds.

Connecticut College provides a large campus greenspace called Tempel Green, as well. It functions as one of the most active places on campus, where students can work, relax, and socialize. Part of what makes Tempel Green so desirable is that it overlooks the Long Island Sound and the Thames River, where the sailing and rowing teams practice. Similarly, the Athletic Center overlooks the Thames River, a beautiful sight for the campus community, and one that adds to the New England charm of the campus.

Elon University, a Campus-Wide Botanical Garden

Elon University is based in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It is situated on a 656-acre campus and is located between the cities of Greensboro and Raleigh. The campus is designated as a botanical garden, a distinction that means the grounds provide not only a pleasing aesthetic experience but that they also serve as an educational tool for the campus and surrounding community.

Elon’s campus includes the 56-acre Elon University Forest, a protected natural area that serves as a teaching and research site. “Elon” is Hebrew for “oak,” and for the campus community, the Elon University Forest symbolizes a permanence, or perhaps a kind of reliable constant, that exists even as the institution and the larger world undergo rapidly changes. The Forest also embodies the notion that nature itself is a central part of the educational experience at Elon.

Students have access to the Elon Environment Center at Loy Farm, which includes a solar farm and functions as a hub for environmental research and sustainability. At Loy Farm, students interact with nature and have a direct say in the landscape of the farm itself; there they have plowed the soil, built deer fences, and have constructed a greenhouse. The farm gives back to Elon University and the larger community, and students, the locals Mill Point Catering, Elon Campus Kitchen, as well as Allied Churches all use the food grown there.

Such attention to sustainability is consistent with Elon’s mission of maintaining a beautiful campus in an environmentally sensitive manner. Plants are carefully selected for every project and garden to ensure that they perform well in their individual environment and require the minimum amount of water, nutrients, and care possible. Appropriate plant selection also minimizes fertilizer use, and any fertilizer that is used is custom blended and contains a slow release form of nitrogen, which virtually eliminates excess nutrients from being released.

Of all the developed landscape at Elon, only about 37% of it is irrigated. Elon’s automatic irrigations system on the main campus is primarily supplied with reclaimed stormwater. The majority of the stormwater is directed into the lakes on campus, of which there are three. The lakes are then connected to a highly efficient irrigation system. The system itself has a central control system, flow meters, and is connected to a weather station on campus. This is highly beneficial to the local watershed in that it prevents sediment and other materials from entering nearby natural waterways.

Another sustainable landscaping practice at Elon is the collecting and composting of its own yard waste in a facility located on the edge of campus. The final compost product is used in campus landscaping to improve soil quality and reduce water and fertilizer requirements.

Landscape Design is Essential

Having a functional and attractive landscape design is essential to the success of a higher education campus. Connectivity, collaborative spaces, activity spaces, and even technology are now integral parts of the outdoor built environments at private universities and colleges.

Landscape design can create a sense of place for each building on campus, just as it can create active and passive outdoor spaces. Transforming a landscape with sustainable landscape systems is another option, and these systems may include native and adaptive vegetation, bioswales, rain cisterns, among many others. The appeal of sustainability is immense—not only does it serve the environment and bring people together, but it can greatly reduce the cost burden for utilities such as water and electricity.

Landscape design should always remain a major priority, for it allows us to enrich on-campus experiences for our students, faculty, and staff.


About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.