Ubiquitous marketing photographs for colleges and universities depicting students lounging under large, majestic trees in the quad (aka “three under a tree”) or ivy-covered academic buildings with dutiful students walking through imposing Gothic-styled wooden doors (aka “the money walk” ”). Institutions highlight walkways lined with flourishing liriope occasionally punctuated by metal benches that no one dare perch on (the sun heats slats to temperatures hot enough to sear skin). Never photographed are the shacks (aka “butt huts”) procured from Lowes or Home Depot wedged between and behind buildings to shelter smokers from the elements.
Some campuses, displaying questionable taste, logic and a huckster-like zeal, emblazon entire hillsides with giant institutional word marks made from painted stones, dyed mulch or plantings. Those lucky enough to have school colors represented by pansy varieties pack every available urn with them in the spring. Other institutions inexplicably allow students to paint (damage) trees and boulders with signs and symbols under the guise of supporting school spirit. However, many campus landscapes can be (and are) so much more interesting than a marketing tool or an aesthetically vacant manifestation of institutional pride.
The visual anchors of natural and built spaces on campus keep alumnx hearts and minds tethered to place. Long-standing trees are protected and preserved, but when felled, remnants are used to make keepsake boxes and pens for donors or fashion ceremonial objects like maces. Official committees review and approve way-finding signs, conservation and sustainability measures, and new construction. Endowments sometimes even provide for the maintenance of green spaces and features like fountains. But how much do most people know about their campus landscape?
While many appreciate their campus’s natural setting for its beauty, campus landscapes embody a rich history and resources for scientific study. Some campus landscapes were designed by famous architects and thought leaders. Some are museums of plants (arboretums and botanic gardens) key to teaching, preservation and conservation. Still others boast state and national champion tree specimens. Why and how did this happen?
Something extraordinary occurred in the early 19th century—a convergence in vision and attitude that would build for the next century and throughout the 20th century—solidifying the concept that each higher education institution is a community. Thomas Jefferson’s concept for the University of Virginia evolved over the decades, beginning with a bill to the Virginia General Assembly in 1778. By 1805 his ideas began to emerge for the campus, and by 1810 he wrote emphatically about his concept that “all the schools … arranged around an open square of grass and trees would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village.”
Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (Italian, 1508–1580) notably served as Jefferson’s inspiration. Even so, the concepts of “landscape architecture” and “landscape gardening” in France and England (respectively) were new in the early 1800s. The concept of interdisciplinary profession of art and science was born. The integration of indoor and outdoor built spaces, or “rooms” and the intentionality of their design became more and more prevalent, especially as thought leaders considered the effects of urbanism. Natural settings could be an essential avenue to well-being and personal fulfillment. Several important treatises were written during the first half of the 19th century on the matter as well as the evolving notion of the landscape architect. The impact of these philosophies is evident in the numerous outdoor spaces (parks, cemeteries and educational institutions) of the period, especially those designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (American, 1822–1903), who notably designed Central Park in New York City. It also spurred the establishment of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), founded in 1899.
Not only did Olmsted create some of the most well-known public parks in the US, but he (and later his sons) also went on to influence and develop plans for numerous college and university campus landscapes across the country, such as Amherst, Smith , Bryn Mawr and Vassar Colleges, among others.
Olmsted believedfervently that the physical environment was an essential aspect of learning and democratizing education. He was especially active during the higher education institution boom in the mid-1800s and even more so after the Morrill Act of 1862. Conversations centered on the location, housing, architecture and landscape design. The relationship between physical space and the sense of place was central to the design of numerous institutions.
Women also played a pioneering role as landscape architects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contributing to the design of college and university campuses. Beatrix Jones Farrand (American, 1872–1959), one of the most celebrated landscape architects of the 20th century and founding member of ASLA, designed the gardens at Princeton and Yale Universities. Ellen Biddle Shipman (American, 1869–1950) designed the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University. Today, numerous historically significant college and university campuses are noteworthy for their landscapes.
While the beauty of a campus instills a sense of well-being, belonging and institutional pride, they are also essential teaching tools. Numerous institutions boast herbariums, farms, forests, botanical gardens and arboretums critical to teaching horticulture, botany, forestry, agriculture, environmental studies, landscape architecture and other fields of study. The documented varieties of plants and their relative protection hold great scientific value. Here are a few college and university gardens and arboreta. More can be found here.
- Harvard University (Arnold Arboretum)
- Swarthmore University (Scott Arboretum)
- University of Hawai’i (Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden)
- University of Pennsylvania (Morris Arboretum)
- Duke University
- Smith College
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of Chicago
- University of Delaware
- Wellesley College
One can also marvel at state and national champion specimens on many campuses. The national registry has been maintained since 1940. Champion plant specimens (primarily trees) are measured, documented, officially recorded and studied. Here are a few:
The important legacy of landscape architecture on colleges and universities can be taken for granted or sometimes subverted, but their importance can’t be denied. Whenever possible, we should take time to learn about and appreciate our campus environments. Visit and seek to learn from the thoughtful investments made throughout the last two centuries on all college campuses and what they can teach about the power of place.