Redefining the Image of the Campus Landscape
By Ryan Peterson, ASLA, LEED, RDG Planning & Design, Des Moines, Iowa
The linear east-west corridor at the Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin features inlaid “stars” to honor project donors. The stars represent the Eridanus Constellation. The ancient Greeks named the Po River “Eridanus,” and gave the same name to the constellation for its river-like path in the sky. For the school, Eridanus represents the “river of knowledge.”
Situated below the limestone bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley and just six blocks away from the Great River, lies Western Technical College in the heart of La Crosse, Wisconsin. For nearly 50 years, an unnamed concrete plaza at the center of campus was neglected. Now, after a significant renovation, Cleary Courtyard has emerged as the hub of campus life.
In 2008, Western Technical College took a systems-based approach to update its campus master plan and identify opportunities to improve the college’s image, integrate academics into the physical space and set the stage for public and private partnerships – all through the lens of ecologically sensitive design.
The Woodland Garden includes a water feature, surrounded by limestone seat walls, that bubbles up through a hole bored in a basalt boulder. Prairie dropseed grasses grow by the bubbler, with sky blue asters (left) and Aspens off to the side. The pavers are custom fabricated solid limestone planks (6-inch thick by 8-inch wide) in random lengths from Vetter Stone, dry laid and set as a permeable paver installation.
RDG Planning & Design, a Des Moines based design firm, was selected to complete the campus master plan and define a strategy to communicate a strong academic value through the external campus landscape. Out of the master plan work, Cleary Courtyard was targeted as a high priority area for improvement. The courtyard was in need of serious repair, plus there were problems with the site’s accessibility, functionality and overall visual appeal. In an age when most students make their decision on what college to attend within the first 15 minutes of their campus visit, Western Technical College realized that change needed to happen soon.
The Savanna Garden has an arching boardwalk bordered by outcropping limestone walls. The rain garden of native plants are awl fruited sedge, Bebb’s oval sedge, black-eyed Susans, blue vervain, butterfly weed, few-leaf sunflower, little bluestem, pale purple coneflower, prairie blazing star, prairie dropseed, purple coneflower, showy goldenrod, swamp milkweed, switchgrass Virginia Mountain mint, wild bergamot and zig-zag goldenrod. A small copse of quaking aspens is on the opposite side of the seatwalls. “Notch” LED bollards (sel’ux) illuminate the boardwalk and paths.
Photography by Kun Zhang (Dimension Images).
A Systems Approach
The college quickly realized the courtyard could be a catalyst for defining a new campus image. The task of the landscape architects was to create such a design. The college wanted the new courtyard to be an engaging, multigenerational space, a king
of “laboratory” for professionals, students and academic leaders.
From the beginning, the team took a systems approach that emphasized responsible design. “When the surrounding natural beauty presents endless possibilities for inspiration, integrating the natural systems within the urban environment became a significant design opportunity,” said Ryan Peterson, project manager at RDG. “Using a natural systems-based approach presented the ability to create an image that defies the traditional ideals of campus planning.”
Interpretive panels (Fossil Industries) in the courtyard include this one (partial view) that explains how stormwater on site is kept out of the Mississippi River, which is just six blocks away. Previously, a 60-inch diameter storm sewer buried directly below the courtyard was the repository for site runoff. Now stormwater runoff is directed to planters on the east and west sides of the courtyard through a series of curb cuts. This contributes to nearly an 80 percent reduction in annual
Within southwest Wisconsin and the tri-state region, Western is highly regarded as one of the premier destinations for graduating seniors. Recent surveys indicate 20 percent of parents in our district indicate Western as a first choice option for their children – a significant fact as there are many other choices for two or four year higher education institutions. Western’s academic offerings have always been very strong, but its image and planning weakened over the previous 20 years.
“Whenever a space opened up, we would build a classroom or insert a parking space,” observed Mike Pieper, vice president of finance and operations at Western, “We were at a point in a very competitive market that demanded us to look strategically at how we were being be perceived by students.” First impressions have certainly changed on campus.
Curving limestone seat walls offer a private gathering area outside the Lunda Center. To the right is a stage, which continues the curving limestone theme. MTR light columns (sel’ux) illuminate the garden area. “Nu” benches in the courtyard, designed by Spanish architects Jordi Henrich and Olga Tarrasó, are 8.5 ft. long, have round, tubular galvanized steel legs and wood seats and backrests (some on site are backless).
The “new image” of Cleary Courtyard includes a large limestone monument on the west end of campus to define Western’s boundary. Strong lines connect users to the surrounding landscape and elliptical rooms create nodes for users as they pass through the site.
“The goals of the project were significant. An emphasis was placed on connecting the campus to the adjacent civic community and promoting an ecologically sound landscape in a socially acceptable way,” said Doug Adamson, project designer at RDG. “We placed a lot of emphasis on using materials and plantings that came from regional sources.”
This educational panel explains the “Evolution of Wisconsin Soil.” Biology students use the courtyard as a classroom for completing insect inventories.
In addition, traffic-calming bump outs at each end of the project slow traffic to promote pedestrian safety, and capture runoff from the streets.
It is clear to most any visitor before they set foot on the campus, that Western is committed to sustainability and progressive thinking.
At the west end of the courtyard a limestone pedestrian gateway monument, integrated with stainless steel signage with the school’s name, defines the western boundary of Western Technical College.
Many designers create spaces that provide great views, or harness the energy found on campus, but few bring the classrooms outdoors. The courtyard landscape provides educational opportunities for landscape horticulture, biology and graphic design students. All the plants are native to Southwest Wisconsin. Landscape horticulture students participate in annual plantings and use the space for plant identification. The design team also created interpretive panels that describe how the best management practices found on the site benefit the environment and
Biology students can study plants, insects and other organisms. With the Mississippi River just six blocks away, all the water that lands on the site was previously directed to a large 60-inch diameter storm sewer, buried directly below the courtyard. The integrated best management practices contribute to significant reductions in runoff, consisting of over 700,000 gallons, which equates to nearly an 80 percent reduction in total runoff on an annual basis, thus reducing the stress on existing infrastructure. Understanding how green infrastructure works and why it is important will help visitors understand the need to preserve
and enhance the resources that the local economy depends on.
The pedestrian thoroughfare hardscape are Borgert pavers with integral coloring from Solomon Colors/Brickform. The blue strips (left) are permeable interlocking concrete pavers (‘Aqua Bric’). The neighboring paving is a custom run of “plankstone.” The wider blue paving that intersects the boardwalk is 12” x 12” ‘Holland’ pavers, also a custom run. The yellow paving pieces are “serpentine.” The eye-catching crosswalks have 9”x3” Hanover ‘PlankStone’ pavers.
As local economies continue to see a shortfall of skilled workers, Western has made it a point to establish and maintain relationships with the public and private sectors. Western’s recently constructed Lunda Center located at the southeast end of the courtyard hosts community events, workshops, clinics and outreach intended to build relationships within the community between students and professionals.In addition to student and business relationships, Western has worked hard to be a partner within the greater La Crosse region sustainability efforts. This created the opportunity to implement the green streets portion of the project and assist the city of La Crosse in meeting its federally mandated National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit requirements for water quality.
“When we were considering a Green Streets Ordinance…it was very easy to show policymakers what such a street would look like. Council members can just look out the windows of City Hall,” said Larry Kirch, director of the City of La Crosse Planning Department.
The Cleary Courtyard and the east-west pedestrian thoroughfare, Wis. incorporates a central courtyard, a rain garden (Savanna Garden) on the west side and a Woodland Garden on the east side. Planters at either end of the passageway, permeable paving and plenty of native plantings help control stormwater runoff.
A Revived Campus Core
Western Technical College is celebrating its centennial this year with a reinvigorated campus core. The courtyard, once an underused, sunken plaza, now boasts a distinctive design that makes it unquestionably the centerpiece and gathering space for the college. Cleary Courtyard celebrates the values of the college and community.
“The college has always had a strong internal message over the 100 years of the college’s existence, but this project goes to show that when you set significant goals and assemble the right team, a relatively simple looking project can function as much more,” said Mike Pieper. “It’s not very often that a college creates an activated space that can successfully integrate living laboratories and appeal to professionals and business leaders as a place of respite.”
RDG Planning & Design
Project Manager: Ryan Peterson,
Project Designer: Doug Adamson
Campus Planners: Mike Bell and Jonathan Martin
Graphic Designer: Rachel LeValley
Lighting Designer: Jason Odefey
Electrical Engineer: Mike Chambers
Civil Engineer Phase 1: Scott Ralston
Architect: Kurt Schroeder, HSR Associates, Inc
Civil Engineer Phase 2: Gary Paradoski & Ed Kallas, Applied Ecological Services
Ecologist: Kim Chapman, Applied Ecological Services
Phase 1 Construction Contractor
-General Contractor: Borton Construction
-Unit Paving: Glacial Ridge, Inc.
-Landscaping: Winona Nursery
-Stone Mason: River City Masonry
-Lighting & Electrical: P&T Electric
Phase 2 Construction Contractor
-General Contractor: Weiser Brothers, Inc
-Unit Paving: Winona Nursery
-Landscaping: Winona Nursery
-Stone Mason: River City Masonry
-Lighting & Electrical: Kish & Sons
Borgert Products: PlankStone, Aqua Bric, Plankstone pavers
Fossil Industries: interpretive panels
Hanover: ‘PlankStone’ pavers
Hydrel Lighting: Paradox up lights
iLight Technologies: Plexineon LEDs
Landscape Forms: Nu benches; Verona chairs;
Pitch trash and recycling receptacles: Bola bike racks
Mankato Kasota Stone: limestone
sel’ux: MTR light column; Notch light bollards
Solomon Colors, Inc.: Brickform integral color concrete
Targetti: up lights
Urban Accessories: trench drains
Vetter Stone: limestone