Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Outside the Walls

When the University of Michigan opened its enormous Lurie bell tower, the gift of a benefactor, on its North Campus in Ann Arbor in 1996, some students said they were displeased that the 167-foot-high tower had no clock. The benefactor had stipulated a bell, not a clock, but the young people didn’t leave it at that. Some creatively rebellious students rigged up a laser to project a blinking 12:00 onto the side of the tower, conjuring the image of an unprogrammed readout on a digital clock.

outdoor spaces 

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

There still is no clock on the tower, and it is a constant that some people will use outdoor spaces and the exteriors of buildings in ways unintended by designers. However, the site surrounding the tower has changed much since then. In fact, the green quad of the North Campus—the campus is where the university’s engineering, arts, and architecture programs reside—underwent a major transformation, completed in 2016, which turned an underutilized space into a varied outdoor set of landscape and hardscape renamed the Eda U. Gerstacker Grove. Three years later, a visit showed a distinctive, naturally evolving place.

Something Different at the University of Michigan

As indicated by the university’s John Keedy, facilities director for Engineering on North Campus who related the story about the blinking light on the tower, the desire was for an outdoor space that “would attract more people.” Even though the university’s nearby Nichols Arboretum and the central campus Diag are signature outdoor features of the institution and of Ann Arbor, the call this time was for “something unique and different” at North Campus.

outdoor spaces 

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

Stoss, the Boston design firm, has described the Grove in part as “a lush and active space that can accommodate a range of rotating performances, events, and everyday activities. It was conceived as a flexible green quad, with clearings in an elegant grove that can host larger-scale activities.” The firm indicates that the plaza paving is “an expressive feature” that creates “a truly unique look and feel.” The walkways at the Grove curve gently through grassy mounds, trees, and stormwater infiltration gardens, and are punctuated by raised, rounded curbs and metal benches. Small LED lights add various colors to the illumination of the grounds. It is all arrayed around the clock tower.

Integrating attractive hardscape with green areas, as well as situating inviting outdoor furniture—fostering a range of uses, such as individual or group study or dining—indicates the desire of an institution to create and equip excellent spaces. Additionally, lesser-used spots can be turned into attractive outdoor places, bringing in a variety of students whether or not their majors are housed directly nearby, and bringing new life to the spot, as was a driving force for the Grove at Michigan.

Integrating the Surrounding Community

outdoor spaces

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

There are many ways to make a significant difference. Outdoor locales can be bold, in a sense, by turning the campus or adjoining city streets—or parking lots—into promenades or plazas, such as at University of Texas-Austin, Sheridan College in Wyoming, Mercer University in Macon, GA, and Drexel University in Philadelphia. To take one, Drexel’s Perelman Plaza, on the site of a former city street, installed metal furniture and long, welcoming wooden benches keyed to landscaping.

On the other hand, adding something of modest scale can be an integral part of a wider process of creating an attractive outdoor place. The right signage and bollards can help define spaces and routes through them with logic, for example. There is the idea that good routes can be found by initially leaving some areas unpaved—until foot traffic wears paths, sometimes called “desire paths,” into the ground, thus identifying potential routes for pavement.

In some creative moves encountered in recent years:

  • Haverford College in Pennsylvania has metal stools, equipped with solar cells, which can be brought outside to provide seating and light for events that take place or last after sunset.
  • Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Gibsonia, PA, uses an attractive canopy tent at its amphitheatre and has an environmentally friendly sewageprocessing unit that appears to be a wine barrel—there are wineries in the region.
  • Phoenix College in Arizona has brought native vegetation right to the curtain wall near the covered entrance of its Hannelly Center, adding life to the hardscape.

Unintended Uses

outdoor spaces

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

On another tack, playful yet strategic touches can go a long way toward further establishing informal activities in a defined space, such as a durable outdoor ping-pong table amid walkways, as at Cornell Tech’s recently opened Roosevelt Island campus in New York City.

The features and forms of the Michigan’s North Campus Grove, like those on so many other outdoor spaces on campuses, have also drawn, as indicated earlier, unintended uses; in this instance skateboarding on curbs and benches. This activity has left some minor damage, but on the positive side indicates that the space is an attraction.

outdoor spaces

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

As Keedy explains, and Stoss has indicated, casual play, even though of a different nature, was a part of equation as well. When planners were preparing the Grove, Keedy reports that students in focus groups suggested at least two related features: sand volleyball courts and a swing set. The swing set initially may have seemed to be a strange request to officials. But as the young people put it, “‘We work with our minds all day; we want some brainless activity. We could just swing,’” Keedy relates. The swing set—its swings are mounted on springs—was added, and has proven to be a popular feature of the Grove.

Whatever the form and feature, one marker of a successful outdoor space on a campus is its usage, even if some uses are unanticipated. And such uses, like the space itself, change. Over time, attractive structures amid vibrant vegetation and stately trees, all in a space animated by plenty of programmed and unprogrammed activities, will provide continuing relevance, beauty, fond memories among alumni, and sense of place.

outdoor spaces 

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

SOME IDEAS ABOUT OUTDOOR FEATURES AND PROJECTS

  • Make a statement. In other words, express with outdoor projects what your institution is about and where it is heading. Such projects take vision and careful, collaborative planning.
  • Take a holistic approach. Work with the experts on- and off-campus to consider all the factors, ranging from daylight hours during the months when most students are on campus, because it may affect the amount of usage and lighting, to the use of salt on walkways and roads in or abutting landscapes, which may help guide the selection of plants and trees.
  • Weigh the pros and cons of one-off or standard features. Selecting excellent, distinctive custom-made elements may be worth it, even if normal wear and tear make them difficult to replace in the future. However, off-the-shelf, standard components may be an alternative.
  • Create landscapes with trees and plants that will look grander in years and decades to come. The day that a major outdoor project is completed should not necessarily mark its best appearance.