For students of all ages, the back-to-school jitters are normal. However, this academic year brings additional apprehension, especially for college students. A semester that was to be filled with football games, social gatherings and rooming with friends has quickly turned into remote learning and the reduction or elimination of on-campus housing. And, as COVID-19 rates continue to fluctuate, there is no guarantee when, or if, student life will return to what it once was. A transition to virtual classrooms, collaborative education models and hybrid environments are the new backbone of the college experience. How can we as planners and landscape architects design education environments that strengthen connectivity and limit proximity while providing for continuity in instruction, even if the social aspects of the ‘true’ college experience cannot be realized?

What we now know – maybe a little too well, is that while not ideal, social integration can be achieved through technology. Online courses and digital materials, videoconferencing and virtual face-to-face tools like Zoom Meetings are domino trending across the greater education system. The anywhere-anytime aspect has opened up a world outside lecture hall doors. But, leveraging these digital technologies has spiked a greater need for charging stations in university courtyards, access to WIFI, public spaces and outdoor areas. More than ever, communal spaces must serve the needs of many, while still being flexible and adaptive to ensure each individual student has access to resources for maximizing their learning experiences. And, it all has to be done without sacrificing personal safety or increasing health risks.

Reduced in-person enrollment is also a catalyst for changes to physical spaces. Older buildings, garages and residence halls that are either underutilized or no longer in use will be carefully evaluated. Some may be torn down to make space for new or expanded outdoor areas such as play fields, recreational spaces, meditation lawns and botanical or themed gardens with seating and lighting. Other spaces may undergo renovations to blend the indoors and outdoors with interior courtyards, skylights, mini-quads and picnic areas connecting residence halls or other facilities. Responding to a myriad of learning styles and healthy havens for both mind and body, some professors have even chosen to take their classes ‘al fresco’, driving the need for open amphitheaters, covered patios, nature trails, evening lighting and heated spaces. ‘Fusion’ spaces for multiple uses that allow for flexibility will be the new normal.

As designers, we are also relying on local artists to mediate the spaces between people in ways that are inviting and respect a campus’s history, character, people and signature aesthetic. Sculptures integrated into courtyards and walkways will subtly influence traffic patterns and limit large clusters of students. Street art – in the form of mosaic tile, murals or pressed concrete patterns, will serve as subtle and unobtrusive reminders to keep distance.

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The silver lining in this academic evolution is that much of an existing campus design will remain untouched if they have been designed to promote successful learning and holistic well-being through integrated experiences. For example, the traditional quad, anchored by trees, plants and large lawns, will continue to be a focal point. Fountains, waterscapes and prominent walkways, originally designed to create a sense of place, now serve as a key campus differentiator as COVID-19 has certainly accelerated innovation and reminded us of how nature fosters health.

Schools, in many ways are the essence of a community – a place where the future is cultivated. Moving forward, it is essential that designers not only develop spaces that cater to the needs of a post-pandemic society, but incorporate long-range, long-term views on a macro level. Solutions will be found by defining and emphasizing what works within the campus realm and adjusting or eliminating what does not. Through smart problem solving, universities will be able to achieve transformative design.