Creating Sacred Spaces on Your Campus

Sept. 1, 2009
Sacred spaces already exist all over your campus, but they must be recognized, maintained, and supported

In our current economic environment, critical funding for essential entities and institutions has dried up, leaving a momentous gap between budget needs and realities; universities are certainly no exception to this phenomenon. Even Harvard – a school that can afford to educate every one of its undergraduate students based on the interest of its endowment alone – is feeling the pinch. Harvard planned for a 30-percent decline in its endowment for the fiscal year ending June 2009.

Universities must compete for excellent students, outstanding departments, and great personnel. But, just as important as the competition for excellence is the competition for alumni dollars. The recent downturn in the economy will make it even more difficult for universities to feed the growth index they’ve been on over the last 20 years, making the goal of tapping into a wider field of donors critical. What can universities do to throw out a larger net and create a new class and type of donor? The short answer: create sacred spaces.

A pivotal event in university-design history was the University of Virginia serving as the canvas to Thomas Jefferson’s preeminent campus design, which became a prototype as a result of its classical architecture, geometrical structure, Southern influence, grid layout, and use of lawns as organic, central organizing elements for social gathering.

Community Colleges vs. Universities

Atop at any list of colleges and universities ranked according to annual fundraising, you’ll see familiar names: Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, etc. The difference between donor funding at universities and commuter/community colleges is staggering. The 20th-highest fundraising university or college in 2007 was the University of California at San Francisco (UC-San Francisco), which raised nearly $252 million. By comparison, Salt Lake Community College raised more funds than all other community colleges with private funding in 2007 by garnering more than $26 million – but that figure barely comprises one-tenth of what UC-San Francisco raked in. Moreover, the next-highest community college on the list was almost $10 million behind (at $17.29 million). The fundraising discrepancy between the commuter college and the university is extraordinary … but why?

Universities and colleges are focused on the progression from learning to knowledge, and from knowledge to wisdom, and recognize that academic institutions provide a true learning environment, which includes instruction and meta-learning (learning that happens without instruction). A physical space can create the most receptive circumstances for this type of learning – meta-learning combines the head, the heart, and the gut. It catalyzes the progression from learning to true knowledge. For example, think about reading Thoreau in a sacred space as opposed to at a desk in a dorm room. Imagine ad hoc outdoor classrooms designed into the spaces around an English department.

There is a distinct difference in the context or experience of the commuter campus and a more formally designed university campus. At any typical commuter campus, a student’s college experience is primarily limited to the time driving to campus; the on-campus experience is basically limited to the trip from the car to class. The distance students may travel might be 100 feet, but probably not more than 900 feet. This takes away the experience of transmigrating through a campus: an experience marked by new and exciting places, meeting people, and touching the heart of a university.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and is credited with establishing the first full-time landscape architecture firm, carries Jefferson’s torch and utilizes green space and central lawns as organizing elements in university design. Olmsted designed prominent institutions like Yale University, Cornell University, and Stanford University – all of which consistently rate among the top universities in annual fundraising, which isn’t merely coincidence. Alumni of these institutions and other campuses defined by sacred spaces return to a wealth of traditions and reconnect with their alma mater, which is integral to giving back. In comparison, commuter/community colleges simply do not produce an emotional attachment within their students that catalyzes a lifelong dedication. As a result, community colleges miss out on grand opportunities associated with having a robust, dedicated, and committed alumni base (see Community Colleges vs. Universities).

Robert Ulrich examined visual landscapes and the psychological well-being associated with them, and noted that we’re biologically predisposed to liking scenes with prominent natural elements – that the stress of education is lessened by scenes of greenery. Yet those opportunities are desperately lacking at the community college (one reason it’s not surprising that students who stay in dorms are 60-percent more likely to be future donors).

Universities are products of history and tradition. They’re not only institutions of learning, but also sites of memory and meaning, comprised of cultural spaces that are host to decades (and often centuries) of ritual. Without the ability and time to walk, talk, laugh, stress, and socially interact on campus, the collegiate experience is gone. It’s the university as a place – not as a collection of buildings – that creates memories for students, and it’s the connective tissue between buildings (the landscape) in which you find sacred spaces.

There are five types of sacred spaces on a college/university campus:

  1. Ritual spaces are those where ritualistic ceremonies are held on a prescribed schedule, and school culture is always on display (a football stadium, for example).
  2. Processional spaces are those discovered while exploring the connective tissue of the campus. Based on movement, they’re associated with the mysterious: What prospects await us on the other side of that hill?
  3. Perspective-dominant spaces are captivating spaces that provide long vistas and scenic environs, and may include terraces and generous meadows, and are often elevated.
  4. Refuge or personal sacred spaces are locations that become consistent with individual rituals and issues of self importance rather than concerns of social importance. These spaces are often small, highly influenced by elements of light and darkness, and the most difficult type of sacred space to create.
  5. Cultural transition spaces are often associated with peril. These are spaces (often associated with height, deep waters, or hard-to-navigate topography) in which transformation can occur – locations in which patrons move beyond the intellectual to basic survival. These are often the places where fraternity/sorority rituals and activities of “secret societies” take place.

How do you create sacred spaces? They already exist all over your campus, but they must be recognized, maintained, and supported. Think of them as large, mature trees where stories have been told for decades. Moreover, not only can existing sacred spaces be made more influential – entirely new ones can be created.

First, university officials must identify these spaces on their campus because they have great power and importance to stakeholders. Place character is often recalled with affection, and a strong sense of place supports our sense of personal identity; for that reason, familiar features are often fiercely defended. A memory survey technique is an excellent way for students to visualize important places on campus. Do they feel at home? Is there a sense of place? Are they transformed? In-depth surveys of students and alumni, interviews, and mapping can help define existing on-campus sacred spaces. This work should be done with the donor wing of the university to identify, analyze, conserve, support, and ensure future protection. Once these places have been identified, it’s essential to reinforce their function and develop their storylines. What’s the history of the site? What meaning does it have? Support that story with elements like seating, plantings, signage, art, paving, and other elements that support (but don’t destroy) the place’s uniqueness. This offers a great opportunity for donor programs – creativity in this exercise is highly valuable. It’s also important to name these places – they should become part of the university lexicon (the quadrangle, the rose garden, etc.).

Opportunities also exist to create new sacred spaces by identifying the weak fabric in your campus. Analyze the campus by looking for the opportunity to create the five sacred spaces mentioned earlier. Wander the campus and look for places where students approach the university. You can even create sacred spaces off campus (most likely in the larger community in which the school exists), which creates a deeper bond between the university and the community.

The United States still leads in higher education, which will keep our students returning decade after decade. This is an opportunity to connect campus buildings to existing sacred spaces (and new ones) by using this concept as the cornerstone of a capital fundraising drive. In our current economic predicament, this is vitally important.

Earl Broussard is president and co-founder of the landscape architecture and planning firm TBG Partners, and has more than 35 years of experience in a wide range of projects across the United States ranging from urban site planning to historic preservation.

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