When it comes to sustainability, the university/college campus provides an interesting challenge. Often consisting of housing, medical facilities, classrooms, labs, recreation space, parking, stores and various other facilities and services, the campus is, in a sense, a functioning town for the student body. The legacy of an institution’s development over time often determines the amount of open space and natural resource amenities that may still exist.

Yet even in the most urban conditions, there are many opportunities to enhance the ecological value and function on a university campus. But where does one begin?

At the planning table.

Integrating landscape ecology and conservation planning into campus master planning efforts is a critical first step in providing colleges and universities with a sustainable framework for growth. One must begin this process by understanding the campus as part of broader functioning natural and hydrological systems. Those same systems, at the campus scale, can be enhanced and preserved in a way that strengthens the ecological health of the campus, as well as the overall campus experience.

Many of the observations, analyses, and recommendations made by those of us involved in the ecological aspect of campus planning are related to preserving, restoring, or creating “green infrastructure” on the property. Green infrastructure, at the campus scale, is a combination of natural and designed features that are connected and integrated across landscapes on campus and provide a variety of ecological, engineering, and educational benefits. These benefits include improved habitat, increased plant diversity, heat island reduction, aesthetic enhancement, accessible and attractive teaching or learning spaces, water conservation, and stormwater management.

This green infrastructure should also be considered beyond the campus boundaries, within the broader, regional ecological context. Observations and suggestions for future planning might explore how woodland or riparian corridors on campus might provide forage and nesting habitat, or stop-over points for migratory birds; or how the stormwater runoff being generated on campus could be treated with practices that may help stream stability within and beyond the borders of the campus.

Working alongside other members of a planning team, the ecological planner/designer can provide a vision of the campus as a living system with the potential for broader ecological health implications – a green spine off of which everything is connected and, to a certain degree, defined. The ecological planner/designer must try to answer the question: how can the buildings, open space, even the hardened infrastructure respond to the natural functioning system in a way that is sustaining and regenerative?

By restoring and highlighting natural resource amenities as they plan for future development, institutions of higher education can construct a sustainable framework that can simultaneously support its mission, future growth, the regeneration of natural systems, and an enhanced campus experience for its entire community.

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