Making an impact: Landscaping for college campuses

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Updated Jun 1, 2021
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When it comes to higher education, the school itself it the main focus, but can the landscaping of these establishments help draw in more potential students?

When a university is well maintained and has eye-catching landscaping, it can not only raise the interest level of the school, it can also create an environment that more students will flock to. However, curb appeal is not the only motivating factor behind an attractive landscape.

Along with being aesthetically pleasing, studies have shown that a school’s well-maintained landscapes can improve grades, attract enrollees and help add to a campus’s safety.

Looks do matter

According to Washington State University (WSU) News, Phillip S. Waite, assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, says that campus landscaping has a profound impact on campus choice.

“In the first 10 minutes, they see a parking lot, pathways, buildings and grounds, and then their decision is made,” Waite told WSU News. “The notion does not rise to the threshold of awareness, but it’s there.”

According to USA Home Remodeling, about 62 percent of students say their school choice was based on appearance alone. Other students may not even realize they’ve made their choice based on their surroundings, but Waite says that landscapes are a medium of communication that’s always sending a message.

“Having a nice looking campus communicates to students that we care about them and value them as customers,” Waite told WSU News. “The traditional college campus has grass and trees, but what was once good enough, no longer is.”

But the question is raised, why does appearance matter so much to students today? WSU News states that the interests of the students reflect several culture-wide trends, such as increased attention on design, experimental economy and consumer marketing.

“People care about aesthetics,” Waite told WSU News, using examples such as the popular TV shows, Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover, that show houses being remodeled and faces being transformed through plastic surgery.

Landscape planning for college campuses

When creating an inviting atmosphere on a college campus, there are many factors to keep in mind, such as being aware of cost, thinking long term, availability of workers, safety and the infrastructure and landscape.

Unless the school is run by the creator of Jurassic Park, you will have a budget to work with when designing a campus. Unfortunately, many universities will come to you with grand ideas that just can’t be done within their price range.

However, it is more than possible to create and maintain beautiful, lasting and impactful designs without breaking the bank. When talking with the university heads, be upfront with them about what they can realistically afford, and have alternative ideas in mind just in case they aren’t ready to, “spare no expense.”

Studies performed at the University of Michigan have shown that when students are surrounded by engaging landscapes, it actually helps their mental health and scholastic performance.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape designer, once said, “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.”

Since vegetation absorbs carbon from the air, students are able to breath in cleaner air. Green spaces also help reduce noises from neighboring cities, and they provide ample opportunities for students to engage in physical activities. This helps students relieve stress, relax and get some much needed outdoor time.

When planning a university landscape, it’s also important to keep longevity and maintenance in mind.

To remain successful throughout the life of the university, keep in mind that upkeep has to be affordable in the coming years as well as in the present. A school may be able to afford the landscape this year, but if the budget dips next year, what will happen?

The experts at T. Lake Environmental Designs recommend keeping the following questions in mind when creating a campus master design plan:

  • How frequently will the planned landscape features require renovation or replacement?
  • What sort of equipment will be required to maintain them? Could alternate options reduce the need for costly equipment down the road, and/or extend the time between costly upgrades?
  • Is there enough cushion in the budget to provide resilience in the face of potential future budget cuts?
  • How will it mesh with existing and future infrastructure changes, such as the addition of new buildings?
  • Will it overtly increase the cost of infrastructure upgrades? For example, having to move or remove a water feature could add considerably to the cost of building a new campus structure.

Also keep in mind that many universities employ students for landscape maintenance jobs, and they are not always trained to handle complex projects. Be sure to take into account how your designs will stand up to storms, new buildings and road construction, utilities and other infrastructure. Will these changes impact your designs or disrupt it in any way?

Maintaining quality landscapes can also help keep campuses safer. By regularly pruning shrubs and plants, it keeps down the possibility of overgrowth and obstructed vision. Holes and pests can also be eliminated through regular maintenance, and proper irrigation systems can help prevent rainwater from pooling in entryways and sidewalks.

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