©EDSA | Insights | Students Walking


©EDSA | Insights | Students Laughing Outside

The college experience brings a spirit of energy, eagerness to try new things and the hopes of expanding horizons. Still the most popular choice for recent high school graduates, 69% are immediately enrolling in higher education. And, with nearly 4,000 universities to choose from, incoming students can be selective – resulting in a competition between higher academia to remain ‘top’ choice.

While reputation, curriculum, faculty and affordability all play a role, many institutions overlook the potential found in reimagining and refreshing outdoor spaces. Long recommended by landscape architects, well-planned educational environments are among the main drivers of student success. Numerous studies show a direct correlation between students who spend time outdoors and those who effectively manage stress and perform well academically.

©EDSA | Insights | Outdoor Classroom Sign

The role of nature is so important in terms of students and staff retention that The American College Health Association (ACHA) outlined a framework for universities to improve and enhance their campus well-being. Among a variety of tactics are the incorporation of indoor/outdoor, multi-purpose spaces that promote connectivity, circulation, relationship building and lifestyle amenities that provide students with a robust range of experiences and heightened engagement.

For instance, colleges that have created nature-oriented nodes of activity such as study pods, cabanas and covered climate-controlled terraces offer students outdoor studying and socialization opportunities despite seasonal weather changes and an altering health climate. Additionally, more progressive institutions are programming their exterior spaces with advanced technology to allow for alfresco lectures and presentations. This redefinition of the classroom, as interior spaces begin to blend into the natural outdoors, forms a holistic approach to learning.

©EDSA | Insights | Students Walking Down Campus Pathway
©EDSA | Insights | Green Pathway

While some institutions believe they lack the acreage for nature-inspired spaces, there are solutions that build upon existing infrastructure. Rooftop gardens, connection bridges and buildings no longer in use can be reprogrammed. Campus decarbonization efforts can masterfully repurpose parking lots and garages into inviting green spaces and plazas with mass appeal. And, refreshed site furnishings such as artistic benches or bike racks provide touchpoints and functionality for campus-goers without requiring extensive installation costs.

By shifting the design approach from reactive to anticipatory, institutions are staying ahead of the curve and retaining a competitive edge. With 62% of future students basing their college decision on exterior appearances and surrounding landscapes, well thought-out, active­ and passive outdoor spaces are a weighted factor. Updates that may seem small, such as refreshed plantings, shaded walking paths, recreation fields and manicured courtyards have a profound impact.

©EDSA | Insights | Aerial View of Campus

In addition, a pedestrian-focused design that incorporates pocket parks, wayfinding, day to night-lighting, transit and limited vehicular streets, make a campus more walkable and student-centric. Taking it a step further, mixed-use amenities that consolidate student bookstores, research centers, residential living and small cafés, for example, provide students with a small town feel rooted in safety and relaxation. And, some institutions are adding community gardens, amphitheaters and art galleries to animate outdoor spaces and inspire new or increase usage.

Though we remain confident that creating a campus in and around its land is a sure way to draw applicants, the way students will utilize these spaces continues to differ. From pep-rallies and band practices to science experiments and team meetings, universities must be ready to accommodate almost anything – making the flexibility of outdoor spaces one of the most important aspects to consider in campus design.

Education is about experience. It’s about building a unified vision that combines the wants of students with the health and wellness needs of now to create a timeless culture of fun and education that people want to be a part of for years to come.