Meaningful Change: Placemaking at Simpson College

The process of "placemaking," a concept that for half a century has been more common to the public realm, can help transform private campuses and campus life.

Maple trees loom large in the history of Simpson College, and in the icons and narratives created to celebrate it. A highly regarded liberal arts school, Simpson was founded in 1860 in Indianola, Iowa, named and based on the beliefs of Methodist minister Matthew Simpson, and the school is still affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Early in its existence, trustee George Griffith announced to the school that he had planted many soft maple seeds on the west side of town, and offered the seedlings to the students.

The school’s president gave the school a holiday, asking each student (they were all boys then) to transplant one or two trees on the campus. Alumnus Joseph Walt would later write a history of the school, beneath the Whispering Maples, and the maple leaf would eventually become a part of the school’s logo.

A century and a half later, the trees still surrounded the campus, but they registered as secondary to the street grid. The school’s oldest and best-loved buildings sat within a grove of maples along one-way C Street, which was in utter disrepair and, moreover, separated the academic campus from several athletic and other student-life facilities.

While the street worked to unite the town, it divided the campus. Brought in to study the potential closure of C Street and installation of a pedestrian plaza after the completion of the 55,000-squarefoot Kent Campus Center on the far side of C Street in 2012, RD&G Planning and Design saw an opportunity to utilize the precepts of “placemaking” to connect the school to its students, faculty, staff and rich history in a more meaningful way.

Placemaking’s theoretical underpinnings took hold in the 1960s with the writings of Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, who offered a vision of people-centered urban architecture as an antidote to the prevailing emphasis on designing cities around the needs of cars and shopping centers. By the 1970s, landscape architects, architects and urban planners began to see placemaking as essential to the creation of interesting and attractive public spaces. And in 2013, placemaking was essential in reforging the link between Simpson College and its whispering maples.

Bringing People Together

Placemaking is a process that unites designers, artists and communities in using shared meaning to transform mere “space” into a “place” of significance for the people who visit and utilize it (space + meaning = place). Public art, which is often used to help visitors interpret their surroundings and make an emotional connection to place, can take an outsized role in public projects – for example, “From Here to There,” the integrated public artwork designed for the High Trestle Bridge near Woodward, Iowa, utilizes steel cribs intended to evoke local history of coal mines as well as the manner in which the Des Moines glacier lobe broke, forming the river valley below it. On a campus where students will work, play, relax, meet up and traverse, by contrast, the connections between people and place typically take more subtle forms.

Uncovering Connections

Uncovering these connections – a campus or community’s assets, inspiration and potential – can’t happen without embracing the gathering of public input and interaction with those who will use the space. And, the designers must be ready to confront differing views within the community about current and future space utilization.

At Simpson College, for example, it was quickly clear to the designers that in order to meet the administration’s goals of creating a central meeting place under the maples, as well as lacing the eastern and western halves of the campus together, C Street would have to be replaced with more than a simple campus gathering space. While members of the college community were overwhelmingly in favor of the change, many local residents who used C Street as a main north-to-south connector were opposed.

This is a relatively unusual problem. We always begin by spending time with the people who will actually use and maintain the place in question, and through this process of getting as many different voices heard as possible (citizens, business owners, property owners, campus administrators, city staff), we typically find that we’re 90 percent of the way there.

Finding Consensus

Everybody pretty much wants the same thing: They want a place of high quality that speaks to who they are and what they do. We’re there to find consensus – not unanimity, but support. You have to get to the point where everybody is heard, even if they may not get exactly what they want. It does take time. But if you take the time and hear what the people have to say, you can create something that’s meaningful even before ground is broken.

A block away in Indianola, D Street carried traffic both north and south, making C Street superfluous. While not everyone from the community who attended our open houses was convinced that closing C Street was going to be a great thing, the new pedestrian thoroughfare works better for the campus and community than it did before. Students who live all over campus now walk freely there, as do children in the community who cross the campus to attend an elementary school just to the west of the stadium.

The college was determined to have a central location large enough to accommodate commencement crowds and other gatherings, but several additional issues were raised frequently in open houses. Remaking the campus, the team was told, should allow for the removal of certain relics of the past – in particular, walls that had once been constructed in the landscape to give an all-girls’ dorm more privacy.

In addition, a way would have to be found to allow students to see and be seen, while at the same time affording them privacy, especially from the windows of classroom buildings and dorms. And finally, the team was told more than once that the campus was lacking a place to meet up, a place that might inspire a ritual or tradition. Whatever was constructed there, the meeting place should have a special quality to it and allow for a story to be created for it by those who will use it.

New Pathways

Implementation began in the spring of 2014 with the closing and removal of C Street and placement of proper drainage, something the street had previously lacked. Without the need for a vehicle right-of-way, a wider pedestrian plaza could be constructed there, and the challenge involved creating an area that served as a meeting place but was also logical from a wayfinding perspective.

The designers settled on graceful curves mimicking the arcs between the points of maple leaves – forms that wouldn’t announce their derivation to a visitor standing in the plaza, perhaps, but that serve to draw the eye away from the site’s former long, linear expression and toward an expression of a liberal arts campus that has many destinations in many different directions. Two arcs lead to the door of a future academic building that will be located between McNeill Hall and Mary Berry Hall; other arcs guide visitors to the Kent Campus Center, Bill Buxton Stadium, Kresge Hall and the east-west street grid. The offsetting sinuous forms lace the campus together and bring the plaza to the shade of the now mature maples.

The plaza and connected pathways’ new surface is a combination of warm gray concrete and terracotta-colored precast concrete bricks. The industrial-grade construction (precast concrete over a concrete subbase) will be able to handle more heavy equipment over time and require less maintenance than other campus streets. This includes the city’s largest fire truck, which will use the pathway for required fire and EMS access. Much of the existing lighting was salvaged and reused (it had represented a recent investment of capital for the school), as was an existing underground fiber-optics cable.

At either end of the pedestrian plaza are gateways utilizing the classic Simpson College mark on a bronze plaque set into brick piers capped with cast stone. The logos are illuminated by decorative light features located in the gateway piers. Hinged, collapsible bollards on either end prevent entry by ordinary vehicles but permit large vehicles such as those operated by the Indianola Fire Department to move freely. (The bollards can be collapsed using a key for non-emergency use.) The two gateways align with the core of the central campus, allowing temporary access on either side for vehicular drop-offs at Kresge Hall (student housing) or tailgating in a lot opposite the stadium.

Slightly off to one side within the plaza’s center is a new campus icon, a 25-foot-tall sculptural element comprising three panels of cut weathering steel showing multiple figures of a “whispering maple.” The triangular sculpture, a response to the intersection of the surrounding walking paths, is surrounded by low masonry seat walls, and a subtle, changing-color LED washes over it at night, giving it a welcoming glow whether in red (game days), pink (breast cancer awareness month) or other hues.

Center Stage

What new traditions the students will invent for this place, we can’t say. But we do know that certain aspects of campus life have improved considerably. Town-gown relations are, if anything, better now that community members and campus residents encounter each other on foot rather than behind the wheel.

Students and faculty members who linger there enjoy the privacy of open space, shielded by trees and away from windows, at the same time that they can see and be seen. Athletics and student life venues have been brought that much closer to the academic core, and everyone has been brought that much closer to the school’s leafy history.

The widest part of the plaza is now the site of the commencement staging area before students make their way around Mary Berry Hall, through a set of old campus gates and across a bronze school seal in the ground (a longtime tradition) before moving on into the Cowles and Kent Centers for graduation ceremonies. Whether used for choreographed rituals or spontaneous moments, the pedestrian plaza is already central to the campus experience.

As a naturally collaborative group that brings placemaking into most discussions we have with clients, we feel the process is essential to shared space being embraced in the way that Simpson College has. In some ways, placemaking can be seen as, simply, good design. But it differs from traditional design thinking in that the shared meaning that is discovered in bringing all of a space’s users to the table early results in something that goes well beyond object-making.

There are many famous architectural creations that, as designed, evoke feelings of awe. Placemaking is the process whereby great spaces are created for people to have experiences in – as The Project for Public Spaces describes it, “Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking [is] a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.”

We see it as the difference between a house and a home. Home is a place where something happens for you – family, leisure time, meaningful relationships. A lot of design looks great but, created in a vacuum, doesn’t really belong to anybody. What separates a place like Simpson College’s pedestrian plaza from mere space is the meaning that many voices brought to it.

About the Authors
G.W. Justin Platts — PLA, ASLA, LEED APR — is a landscape architect with RD&G Planning & Design in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jonathan Martin — PLA, ASLA — is a landscape architect with RD&G Planning & Design in Des Moines, Iowa.