Designing an Outdoor Learning Experience on UNL’s East Campus – The Field


by Jennifer Seacrest

Conceptual master plan for Legacy Plaza at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Click here to see on a larger scale. /image: Studio Olsson

When the University of Nebraska-Lincoln asked for ideas to reimagine a green space that would honor Nebraska’s four U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture and reflect the historical and agrarian heritage of East Campus, the Olsson Studio Steering Committee and the university decided to go further.

Our team chose to design a space that would become an experience for students and faculty as well as members of the greater Lincoln community. We wanted to create a welcoming and useful space that would give the university flexibility in terms of programming. So every decision made was made with the goal of creating a unique and memorable experience for those who will use the space, engage students, and showcase the natural beauty of East Campus.

Legacy Plaza is located on UNL’s East Campus, surrounded by the Food Industry Complex to the south, the Dinsdale Family Learning Commons to the east, and the Nebraska East Union to the north. In 2013, the campus master plan identified the project as an opportunity to invest in civic infrastructure by creating “memorable and symbolic open spaces”. Additionally, then-Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green challenged Campus Planning to use this 6.5-acre lot to honor four U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture from Nebraska. In doing so, the department wanted to integrate the space into the campus landscape and honor the agricultural roots of East Campus by housing the statues honoring former secretaries and naming the green space Legacy Plaza.

The old concept vision plans sat dormant for four years. When renovations began on the Dinsdale Learning Commons and East Union, the Legacy Plaza project suddenly took on new life.

That’s when the Olsson studio came into the picture.

The first thing the team did was carry out an inventory and analysis of the site and research the area. Our research also drew on site designs created by UNL students within their design studios. We met often with the University’s Governing Board to understand their aspirations, goals and objectives.

During this process, it became clear that access to space (and nearby buildings) and movement of people would be crucial to creating a welcoming environment. It gave us the opportunity to rethink what the space could be used for and develop it as a facility that students, faculty and visitors could enjoy.

Analysis of existing traffic. Click here to see on a larger scale. /image: Studio Olsson

Although not part of the original scope of the project, the Olsson team felt it was important to investigate several circulation alternatives that prioritized internal pedestrian traffic and the movement of vehicles, services and emergency traffic to the perimeter. After verifying and refining these ideas with the steering committee and other stakeholders, we developed three unique design alternatives based on the preferred traffic pattern. Once again, the design team and steering committee verified and refined the concepts through a collaborative and interactive working session. During the session, we explored merging ideas and refining concepts so that a consensus preferred plan could be achieved.

Traffic opportunities and constraints. Click here to see on a larger scale. /image: Studio Olsson

The final design called for the removal of a causeway in the core of the campus to allow for the opening up of green space and the creation of opportunities for intentional connections with surrounding buildings. The design transforms the former rear of the buildings into “front doors” while providing amenity space for students and members of the greater community to sit, stand and relax. These Event Layout Terraces were created to serve as stages at student or community events. Pocket was created for activities where students can learn, catch up with friends, and just relax.

Pockets or activity rooms have become a key design feature as most of the majors offered on East Campus focus on the outdoors, in agricultural sciences, natural resources, agronomy, and agriculture. ‘horticulture.

With teaching and engagement evolving as a key part of the project, the university and the design team were able to involve students and faculty in the project process. Following the development of the Legacy Plaza Master Plan, the design team held a walk with the students to discuss the design process, design results, and implementation. Following this walk, the students were able to re-explore the space as part of a flagship project involving members of the steering committee and university administrators. The student plans again generated some good ideas, and some are currently being incorporated into the ongoing design development.

Prioritize student ideas. Click here to see on a larger scale. /image: Studio Olsson

Once all phases of the project are complete, Legacy Plaza will exemplify a complete redesign of the central green space of UNL’s East Campus, transforming a once underutilized area into the heart of the campus community and fulfilling the original purpose. to create a resource for teaching and engagement. with UNL students and the Lincoln community.

Jennifer Heeney Seacrest is Creative Technical Lead at Olsson Design Studio in Lincoln, Nebraska.


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