Higher Education Resiliency: Why Preparedness Matters for University Campuses

Megha Sinha

If you polled a room full of individuals working in higher education, “resiliency” would most likely mean something different to everyone. Some may say it refers to the ability of an individual or system to quickly recover, to rebound, to be strong, to have grit, to outlast those bumps in the road ahead, to adapt and sustain change. 

In the context of higher education facilities — and the role of architecture, design and campus planning — why is resiliency relevant? There is a spectrum of reasons: from protecting foundational needs like safety, reliability and resources, to supporting design strategies and models that enhance creativity, efficiency, collegiality and achievement in learning and teaching.

 

Recently, Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — a university that serves close to 30,000 students in the United States — underwent a major master planning effort to guide capital investments in the campus over the coming decades. Inherent in that goal is protecting the investment by being resilient in the face of natural disasters. Through that work, lessons are emerging that can provide insights to other universities, both in how to incorporate resiliency as a critical element and how to do so in a way that adds both every day and long-term benefits.

Resilient design protects people and places.

 

LSU straddles two watersheds, Fountain Bayou and Duplanier Bayou, that drain through a larger ecosystem that connects to Lake Pontchartrain. The master plan proposes to help mitigate flooding by working with the land and existing topography for stormwater management by:

  • Converting surface parking lots into landscaped water retention areas;

  • Widening the banks along Corporation Canal to slow water and create more efficient drainage; 

  • Providing multi-purpose open space, pathways and diverse native plantings;

  • Siting “flood-able” development in the floodplain;

  • And designing future buildings to account for possible flooding.

 

Yet these landscape and planning strategies go beyond disaster preparation, as a response to the need to conserve natural resources on any higher education campus and provide a more restful and pleasant environment. 

Resiliency means rethinking everyday habits and behaviors.

 

If university and college campuses pledge to use less energy and water every day, they could save precious resources and reallocate the savings to academic and research investments. For example, by reducing student water usage as part of a master planning strategy through green design choices such as low flow fixtures and greywater capture, universities can promote ecological resiliency: not only lowering the strain on this precious resource, but also redirecting water, potentially, toward campus landscapes and outdoor educational programs, such as kitchen gardens to support healthy food options and diverse wildlife habitats.  

Resiliency can increase innovation.

Campus design strategies not only can help mitigate the effects of natural events and preserve resources, but also provide the collaborative, social spaces that are proven to spur innovative thinking, an essential part of the university mission. Neuroscience research has shown green spaces — whether in urban, rural or suburban campuses — can lower stress, which in turn can promote innovative problem-solving; this is a design strategy familiar to the corporate workplace. In the case of the LSU master plan, proposed landscape strategies that mitigate flooding, such as lawn terraces designed for stormwater retention and vegetated embankments, can provide rejuvenating park-like “third spaces” for students, faculty and staff to learn, recharge and socialize. 

 

More broadly, university resiliency strategies should be proactive in nature and not only target the long-term need to prepare for and recover from disruptive events, but also strive to enhance the quality of academic life now, every day.

Megha Sinha, LEED AP, BD+C, is an urban planner at NBBJ.