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The design of the spaces between buildings is an important aspect of every campus. Each campus building is tied to the campus through its site, and the success of both buildings and the campus as a whole requires careful site development. The users of a campus usually experience the campus landscape by moving through it, unaware of the arbitrary lines that may separate one site development project from another. This means that any given site development project needs to be designed as part of a larger campus fabric that extends beyond the limits of the project itself. Whereas campus buildings are often characterized by their discreteness and unique separateness, the landscape of most campuses is all-embracing and continuous. Whereas buildings often tend to be objects in space, the campus landscape consists largely of linkages, transitions, and connective spaces. Therefore, the most valued characteristics in campus site development are continuity, unity, and the coherence of spatial relationships. Campus site development is complicated by the fact that campuses usually evolve over time through multiple projects executed by many people, and landscapes are, by nature, dynamic processes that grow and transform themselves over time.

Planners and designers should recognize that the campus is ultimately a setting for campus life in all of its many aspects. The campus serves essential functions such as access and circulation, but it also provides symbolic meanings that people will carry with them for a lifetime. Because site development can have a powerful impact on the basic functionality of a campus, as well as on its deepest meanings, designers should attend to it with the utmost care and thoughtfulness. Site development is the design of human experience.

Site development, as used here, refers to designed physical improvements or modifications to the campus landscape, excluding utilities and buildings. Site development is also distinct from campus master planning because of its focus on specific physical projects that include the preparation of construction documents and project implementation. Master plans define a broad physical framework for campus land use, facility location, circulation, natural systems, infrastructure, and overall space organization. Site development is the process by which the ideas of a master plan are designed in detail and brought to realization on the ground. Site development elements typically include drainage, earthwork, roads, paths, exterior pavements, site structures, exterior signage, exterior lighting, site furnishings, lawns, and plantings.

Site development projects are often integrated with building or infrastructure projects; however, site development projects can also be undertaken as independent projects not associated with specific building or infrastructure projects. Both types of site development projects should be approached with an awareness of the issues discussed in this section.

Site development projects associated with building projects may suffer when site considerations are overshadowed by architectural concerns. This may occur for a number of reasons, including overlooking site requirements and under budgeting for them; neglecting to clearly define the program requirements and design objectives for the site development project at the outset; not using or empowering skilled professional civil engineers and landscape architects on the project team; allowing the site development budget to be co-opted by the architecture; or giving insufficient attention to the site’s role in connecting the building with the rest of the campus. These mistakes should be avoided.

Site Development Project Considerations


Whether a campus site development project is being undertaken independently or as part of a larger architecture or infrastructure project, the following considerations are intended to provide a guide for project managers charged with defining and executing such projects. These considerations will apply selectively and as dictated by the specific circumstances of the project. Some of the guidelines may apply to a project, while others may not. It is not likely that all guidelines will apply to any one project.

Project Objectives and Programmatic Requirements


A request for design services for a site development project (or for the site development aspect of an architectural project) should include a clear statement of the project’s objectives and programmatic requirements, including environmental requirements, functional requirements, and aesthetic requirements. A careful determination of these needs at the outset of the project will help to establish a realistic site budget and to inform site designers of the full extent of their design responsibilities.

Project objectives related to environmental factors typically emanate from a broad sustainability goal to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This is a definition of sustainability taken from the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report. Specific project goals may include the protection of existing plant and soil communities, enhancement of habitat value, retention of existing site hydrologic systems, improvement of campus micro-climate, appropriate responses to solar conditions, and selection of sustainable building materials. Almost all sustainability objectives related to securing ecosystem services lean toward “protection” and “preservation” of existing natural systems because it is much more cost-effective to protect and preserve ecosystem services than it is to restore or replicate them. The key to sustainable site development is to account for environmental costs and benefits during the goal-setting and programming phases of the project. As of 2016, the most comprehensive system available for organizing campus site sustainability objectives is The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)SITES is a landscape rating and certification system developed by the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanical Garden. SITES publishes a reference guide titled: SITES v2 Reference Guide for Sustainable Land Design and Development. Even if SITES is not used to certify specific campus site development projects, the reference guide provides a useful outline for identifying low-impact development strategies, sustainable design objectives, and methods for measuring and documenting sustainable design practices. The Landscape Architecture Foundation also offers a useful resource, The Landscape Performance Series, for framing and measuring sustainability goals. The Landscape Performance Series provides a wide range of sustainable landscape design precedents, metrics, methods and calculators for showing the value of sustainable design approaches.

Functional requirements may address utility needs; vehicular access; service and emergency access; pedestrian and bicycle access; vehicular and bicycle parking; lighting; signage; furnishings; site amenities; security phones; and anticipated maintenance.

Impacts of utility excavations and appurtenances will require coordination with other site elements if they are to be integrated into the campus design. Too often utility requirements can be can be left out of the early design thinking, only to “happen” later in an unplanned way that can result in transformers or other obtrusive elements being assigned inappropriate visual prominence. Requirements for future utility access should also be identified in the programmatic requirements. Such requirements may include provision for excavation as well as access for building mechanical equipment changes.

Requirements for all types of access to the site should also be identified as explicitly as possible in the project objectives and program. Vehicular access for emergency, service, transit, and snow removal vehicles is often a critical factor in setting the dimensions and character of campus circulation corridors. Vehicle access requirements should be carefully coordinated with building and utility service access needs. Often, vehicle access requirements can run counter to an institution’s goals to foster a “pedestrian-first” campus. Spelling out the requirements of vehicular functions will bring attention to the necessity of separating them from or integrating them into the design of pedestrian campus spaces. Project program objectives should quantify parking for cars and bicycles and set objectives for locating, visually screening, and connecting these facilities to campus destinations.

Requirements for site lighting, security phones, signage, and site furnishings should direct designers to campus standards, or, if standards do not exist, the project brief should define the institution’s intent with respect to all of these elements. A realistic statement of future anticipated maintenance levels should also be included in the project objectives so that materials, planting, fountains, lighting, irrigation, and other site details can be designed to conform to the institution’s maintenance capacity. The success of landscape projects is intimately tied to the institution’s ability to maintain what has been designed. The perennial question is whether one designs for maintenance or tailors maintenance to a design after it is built. The danger of the later approach is that maintenance resources will not be able to meet the requirements of an elaborate design and the design will not succeed as envisioned.

Functional requirements should also address how development of the site is intended to influence behaviors and serve functional uses. This may include general objectives such as “encourage and foster social interaction” or “strengthen connections to the surrounding community,” and specific objectives such as “provide a variety of seating opportunities,” “maintain visibility for security,” or “separate areas of conflicting use.”

Aesthetic or sensory design requirements deal with the human experience of a finished landscape. Such requirements may address issues such as continuity and unity of the campus landscape, creation or maintenance of vistas and visual connections, respect for cultural and historic landscape features, seasonal variety in plantings, or reinforcement of a specific landscape character. Making these objectives explicit will ensure that designers receive proper direction and that the institution obtains a design that meets its needs. If the aesthetic goals of the project are not stated clearly, the institution risks entering into an overly-subjective design exercise without proper controls and direction.

Predesign Project Cost Budget


A predesign budget of project-specific site costs should be established, separate from the building budget. Sufficient thought and investigation should be exercised so that this budget accurately reflects the specific project conditions.Failing to prepeare a project-specific site budget or determining the site budget as a standard allowance or percentage of the building budget runs the risk that unique costs will not be accounted for, such as costs related to managing stormwater, special soils, or geotechnical conditions. Unlike conceptual building budgets, which can be estimated on a square foot basis for given building types of a standard size, site costs are always site specific and resist the application of a standardized square foot cost. It is prudent to carry a 25 percent contingency on construction costs in the predesign phase. Some institutions maintain the site development budget separate from infrastructure and building budgets throughout the project. This helps to ensure that the quality of site development is sustained.

Project Relationship to Existing Plans and Campus History


The relationship of the proposed site development project to the campus master plan and other operative campus-wide studies and guide plans should be established. It is important to determine how the project may be defined by the land use, circulation, infrastructure, open space, natural systems, stormwater systems, environmental protection systems, and other key components of the master plan.

Other campus-wide master systems that may influence the project could include historical designations, universal access requirements, signage, exterior lighting, a campus arboretum, campus art policy, emergency access requirements, the campus climate action plan, and disaster planning. In the absence of a campus master plan or other approved planning guidelines, it will be necessary to determine if the project is significant enough in its potential long-term impact on the campus to warrant a master planning exercise prior to proceeding.

Because most campus site development projects involve an addition or modification to an existing campus setting, knowledge of the history of the campus development is particularly important. Historical knowledge leads to an understanding of the character-defining features of a campus and their significance in national, regional, and local history. For campuses with important historic resources, review of plans by the state historic preservation office may be required.

Most campus master plans are implemented in phases over time; therefore, it is often necessary for site and landscape plans to anticipate future development. For example, primary drainage or utility systems may be designed and developed in advance of buildings. Frequently, the space requirements for staging and constructing buildings mean that landscapes are best constructed in their final form after the buildings are built. In some situations, it may be necessary to install a temporary landscape until the ultimate campus plan is realized. This was not always the case. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was more likely than today that an institution would develop beautiful quadrangles and parks in advance of building construction. Today, the pace of change and the inability to plan more than ten years into the future makes the practice of building the open space structure of a campus in advance of the buildings the exception rather than the rule.

Survey and Data Requirements


Prior to design, an accurate topographic survey of the project area and relevant surroundings should be obtained. The survey should be of sufficient detail to facilitate developing construction documents for the project. Minimum survey data usually includes boundary information, easements, limit lines of overlay districts, utilities, topography to 1-foot contours, spot elevations, building floor elevations, pavements, curbs, site structures, and existing vegetation. For project sites containing waterways and wetlands, survey work should delineate the wetlands and indicate 100-year and 500-year flood inundation levels. Archaeological surveys may be required on project sites with known or potential historic resources. These surveys are often time-consuming and can be very expensive; therefore, their requirements should be identified early in the planning and design process.

For institutions subject to zoning regulations, a review of the zoning code and special district regulations is necessary. In some situations, self-imposed or municipal codes may also apply to public as well as private institutions. Michigan State University, one of the most attractive historic campus landscapes in the United States, has its own zoning ordinance and open space protection policy with which all new campus construction must comply. A review of all applicable local, state, and federal permit and review requirements should also be conducted. Project schedules are often structured around and limited by the review and permit processes of zoning and environmental agencies, the Department of Transportation, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Review of Physical Factors That May Influence Site Development


The design process for site development projects on campuses should be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of existing site conditions as they relate to project objectives. All site development projects are in fact a modification or transformation of an existing site, not the creation of something new. There is always an existing set of geographic, geologic, hydrologic, solar, and climatic conditions that will exert influence on the development. It is desirable to understand these and other site factors at the outset of a project. Working with rather than against the site’s attributes is usually a cost-effective strategy. The following physical factors should be considered.

Geotechnical and Soil Conditions

The presence of unstable soils or bedrock near the surface can influence the overall site design, grading costs, and landscape development costs. Certain geologic conditions such as the occurrence of sinkholes in limestone karst terrain can affect surface drainage, which may impact groundwater resources. In situations where subsurface geology will be expected to support site structures, test pit and soil boring data should be obtained from a geotechnical engineer.

Rarely are site soils understood at the outset of a development project, yet the success of landscape plantings depends upon them. Topsoil is a living medium necessary for the success of most landscape plants. Tests including fertility, organic content, drainage, and Ph can establish a soil’s suitability for supporting plant life. Project planning should account for protection of existing soils, topsoil stockpiling, importation of soils, and design of new soils as required. On many urban sites or sites with high building and construction density, it is necessary to overcome excessive compaction, lack of soil oxygen, and lack of microbial activity, important to healthy living soils. Costs for breaking up hard pan, providing underdrainage in heavy clay soils, or designing topsoil from scratch can be significant and should be accounted for early in the project. The success of future plantings will depend on it.


Existing patterns of surface drainage, groundwater, and their relationship to immediate or off-site water resources should be understood to assess potential impacts of proposed development on wetland communities and water resources. Options for rainwater storage and recycling should be evaluated, particularly in regions where water is a scarce resource. Rainwater management strategies that help to maintain and mimic the natural water cycle and strengthen its relationship with plant communities are preferable to strategies that accelerate water movement from the site. Bio-swales, buffer strips, rain gardens, and other devices should be considered for integration into the site plan. Levels for flood of record and for 100-year and 500-year flood occurrences should be evaluated.


Regional climatic characteristics such as extreme temperatures or seasonal precipitation can influence fundamental project objectives related to providing shade, wind protection, and solar orientation, and allowing adequate space for snow removal and storage. The microclimate of the site is important in establishing human comfort levels and will have a defining influence on the level to which a site will be occupied and considered attractive by campus users. Regional realities of orientation will have a strong influence on growing conditions for plants as well as human habitability. For example, in New England the north side of a building has the opposite effects of the same exposure in the Southwest.


Landform is frequently a principal defining feature of campuses. For example, topographic elevation is a significant determinant of the psychological prominence or inferiority of a site. High ground nearly always creates positive associations, whereas low-lying sites at topographic depressions are nearly always subordinate. Slope can establish orientation, define subareas, create land divisions, and limit or facilitate views and paths of circulation. The influence of topography on accessibility is fundamental and should be assessed at the very outset of the project.

Plant Communities and Vegetation

With the exception of grasslands, desert environments, and open landscapes associated with large bodies of water, woody vegetation is often one of the most important space-defining elements of a campus landscape. Plants define the visual limits of space and the character of space with their color, texture, line, and form.

The composition, integrity, and functions of local plant communities should be assessed in relationship to their larger ecosystems. Environmental benefits such as soil erosion control, microclimate influences, heat island mitigation, wind protection, contribution to biodiversity, and habitat values should be identified.

On many campuses, plantings are used for educational purposes. The relationship of the project site to established “plant walks,” arboretum collections, research projects, memorial trees, or special specimen trees should be established. Trees to be retained during the project should be evaluated by an arborist or urban forester during the design phase. Recommendations for tree protection and care should be obtained.

The level of available grounds maintenance should also be observed.  Most landscape installations will require ongoing maintenance to retain their intended form; therefore, it is essential to understand the existing maintenance practices that will be applied to the new project.

Visual Spatial Environment

The visual organization and character of a site can assert a powerful influence on site planning decisions. Axial views and symmetrical building arrangements create influential visual and spatial patterns. Sometimes more subtle, but equally influential, are the naturalistic spatial qualities defined by tree groves, park-like lawns, and natural landscape features such as rivers, gorges, and rock formations. Recognition of these organizing elements and identification of their significance to the campus is fundamental to decisions about a site development project.

Built Environment

The existing infrastructure, roads, parking lots, buildings, and other site structures and systems on and surrounding the project site should be inventoried and evaluated. Vehicular, bicycle, transit, and pedestrian access for students, faculty, staff, and visitors is a primary consideration. Existing service and emergency access routes that need to be maintained or modified should be identified. Existing parking, including its visual and physical impacts, should be understood. How project access will relate to existing and future circulation systems that extend beyond the project area should be defined, and priorities should be determined.

Existing utility services should be evaluated relative to providing services to the new project. Off-site improvements and utility extensions to serve the site project should be identified, and the potential impact of utility trenching on the site should be determined.  Existing systems such as site lighting, security phones, signage, and furnishings should be inventoried and examined relative to the project requirements and how the new project will integrate with these systems.

Existing and proposed buildings that are part of the site development project should be understood in terms of their functions, as well as their character and space-defining characteristics. The effects that existing gathering areas and other outdoor behavior settings may have on the site development project should also be considered.



The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, the United States Botanical Garden and American Society of Landscape Architects,. 2014 SITES v2 Reference Guide

American Society of Landscape Architects, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanical Garden. 2009.The Sustainable Sites Initiative Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks.

Kenney, Daniel, Ricardo Dumont, and Ginger Kenney. 2005. Mission and Place: Strengthening Learning and Community Through Campus Design. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Lynch, Kevin, and Gary Hack. 1984. Site Planning, 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Russ, Thomas. 2002. Site Planning and Design Handbook, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

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