Mar 13, 2019

The Power is in the Process: University Planning & Development Via Community Engagement

By Dana Muller, AIA, LEED AP

Systemic change is hard — especially in education. In 2009, when Gensler began working with Lynn University to mesh their 2020 academic vision with a new master plan, we knew our approach had to be different. How could we plan for, support, and enable growth with so many diverse stakeholders at play? The answer was a unique strategy of community engagement. Here’s how we got it done.

What Community Engagement Means
The first step in engaging with the community is identifying stakeholders. Stakeholders are those people or entities who have a role to play in the success of your endeavor. Here, we knew our community ranged from long-tenured faculty and a growing population of students, to local zoning, traffic and neighborhood officials. Lynn and Gensler decided to face these challenges head-on and seek stakeholder input from the early stage of planning.

The next step was to begin the visioning process, in which we identify consistent messages, aspirations, and our constraints. Success in this area requires openness to other people’s ideas and the strength to do what’s best for the campus mission and community.

Some consistent themes that came out of our visioning process for the master plan at Lynn included:
  • Fundraising and building a new student center at the heart of campus
  • Building a new residence hall to keep students on campus in a pedestrian-centric environment
  • Modernizing academic classroom
  • Creating a more sustainable campus
  • Resolving parking and traffic issues that were a concern to the city
Seeking stakeholder input can be scary, but it made a world of difference in our effort. When your team is heard it communicates that you care about what they think. While every verbalized concern, wish and dream cannot be accommodated, your team will be behind you if you have treated their concerns with the highest level of consideration.

Start with the board, the faculty, and the staff – but don’t leave out the students, the city, or the neighbors in the master planning process. With Lynn, we identified and met with 350 stakeholders. We held 29 individual interviews and involved hundreds of faculty, staff, and students in visioning sessions held over a period of many weeks. We made it clear we were interested in hearing what was important to them. We sought their buy-in and made sure they felt heard.

This process resulted in markers of success for our master plan that became our mission and goals:
  • Foster chances for financial growth
  • Develop physical character of the campus
  • Integrate sustainability
  • Fortify relations with the community
  • Enhance the academic environment
  • Design to improve campus life
How Community Engagement Supports Growth
This next step involved laying the groundwork for the growth the master plan envisioned. We began immediately on an infrastructure and academic curriculum assessment and established sustainable goals:

1) Vehicle circulation
We had to come up with a plan to gradually adjust vehicular traffic to campus perimeter. This was key to realizing the pedestrian-friendly campus that all stakeholders desired.

2) Pedestrian circulation
Gensler’s research on walkable cities tells us that a walkable distance is considered about 1,300 feet — roughly, a five-minute walk. To create the walkable campus that was a goal of the visioning process, the master plan located critical student services to the center of the campus within a walkable five minutes of each other.

3) Landscape approach
Achieving a more sustainable campus was not only a goal of the students and faculty, university leadership also recognized that it’s good business. We worked with Lynn and their landscape architect to develop a landscape master plan to return the plant material on campus to a native, low-maintenance solution and implement a 100% reclaimed water irrigation system using city reclaimed water. There were 90 million gallons of drinking water saved at the end of the first four years.

4) Renewable energy
We worked with Siemens to put a new chilled water plant on campus to serve future development and plan to implement other innovative renewable energy strategies in the future.

5) Storm water
Before we could proceed with any new development, a storm water infrastructure plan — “The Lakes Master plan” — had to be put in place. An unexpected result of improving these lakes was a significant savings in maintenance from turning them back to a more naturally maintained ecosystem.
Lynn also set some aggressive sustainability goals for themselves. We were inspired by their goals and encourage all our master planning clients to do the same. They set out to reduce energy consumption by 70% against a “business as usual” baseline, and to do the same in a reduction of potable water use and water used for irrigation by 50% and 70%, respectively. Likewise, Lynn aimed at reducing solid waste sent to the landfill by 20% while increasing the selection of native and adapted planting to a minimum of 30% of all plants.

Lynn’s success in measures of this nature were inspirational. Every year, the university diverts a total of 11% of campus waste through a growing recycling program. Their reduction in energy usage was so dramatic the month after replacing gymnasium lights with LED and adding occupancy sensors that the power company came out to see if something was wrong with the meter.
When it came to further improvements to physical infrastructure, Lynn immediately focused on adjusting storm water retention, energy usage, upgrading campus infrastructure and driving development and fundraising. 

One priority was the chilled water plant. Multi-colored pipes were used as a tool in educating students about sustainability. The chilled water infrastructure upgrade – along with updates to electrical infrastructure – saved four million kilowatts of energy in the first four years of operation. That is the equivalent of taking 589 cars off the road for one year and translates to an equivalent greenhouse gas reduction of 2,722 metric tons. 

The Outcomes: What Does Community Engagement Enable?
The last step is to achieve actual growth. We knew that development would be critical to any construction projects, so, arm in arm with Lynn, we sought to build with a mission and purpose. No construction was to occur unless is was to build nimble and flexible spaces that integrate long-term, sustainable strategies. We leveraged the master plan with stakeholders to improve buy-in, excite change and inspire new ideas.

Donors became invigorated when they saw Lynn’s commitment to bettering the campus and how invested the stakeholders were in the master plan’s forward motion. As the chilled water plant set the groundwork for growth, that investment by the University inspired the donation of a new athletic facility to support the National Champion Soccer and Lacrosse teams, a new Business School and a new housing building. We are now looking forward to celebrating the success of this master plan and the generous gift of another long time supporter of the University on February 7, 2019, when we complete the fifth new building and 11th project on campus, the University Center.

Every aspect of this initiative’s success is a testament to what community engagement can achieve. An approach like this combined with Lynn University’s open-minded, progressive leadership is an inspirational blueprint for how to design for education’s growth. 

Dana Muller, AIA, LEED AP is a Senior Associate at Gensler. She brings more than 15 years of experience in the design and execution of spaces for learning to her role as Education Practice Area leader in Gensler’s Tampa office.

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