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What Trends are Driving Campus Master Planning

July 1, 2019

At the heart of the higher education master planning process is the need to prepare for growth in student enrollment and programs as well as the natural evolution of existing curricula.


A variety of factors are driving new thinking and planning strategies on academic and university campuses across the country. Traditional collaborative design methods that address identity, existing building hierarchy, green spaces, circulation, servicing and wayfinding remain an essential foundation.

Meanwhile, developments in technology, teaching pedagogy, social engagement, and health and wellness place a humanistic lens on the process of long-term campus visioning.

Smart Growth

Today we must consider campuses as essentially cities within themselves, bringing their own challenges to defining identity, pedestrian and vehicular traffic, resiliency, infrastructure and efficient land use.

At the heart of the master planning process is the need to prepare for growth in student enrollment and programs as well as the natural evolution of existing curricula. Planning strategies must be flexible to meet changing demands for amenities, housing options, transportation systems and academic facilities that come with population increases.

[Related: How Data-Driven Facility Management Affects Higher Education Enrollment]

Current urban development practices lend insight to integrating flexibility into an academic campus’s vision, and flexibility helps accommodate an unknown future. Planning for connections between where individuals live, work or learn, in the case of campuses, and recreate is at the core of strategic urban design.

For campuses, placing athletic, student services and wellness amenities along prominent circulation paths that connect residential complexes to academic districts can improve the experience of students and increase their sense of belonging.

(North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Robert Benson Photography.)

An “Academic Street” at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) serves as an organizing spine for the master plan. It allows for future campus phases to expand in both directions, with residential at one of its ends, and for interior and exterior learning spaces to grow and adapt. The “spine” establishes common point of orientation for life on campus.

Another urban planning concept, transit-oriented development, or the integration of public transit systems into the planning vision, is an important factor in ensuring easy access for commuting students and eliminating the excessive use of land area for parking.


The concept of mixed use has long been a staple of urban development and presents a valid model for thoughtful academic planning. Examples include adding a health or fitness program within residential buildings, a large lounge space as part of a classroom building or a theatre to a student center programs.

This presents clients strategies that promote use, provide flexibility, invite in the community and create buildings positioned to serve multiple, changing uses in the future.

Planning for shared amenities and spaces for meetings and collaboration within and between buildings increases use as well as students’ sense of belonging. These tactics also foster a sense of community in campus.

(Bullis School. Robert Benson Photography.)

At the Bullis School, a STEM classroom building balanced learning and collaboration spaces with easy public access to a performance theater, a café, retail space and an entrepreneurial program, which engages on local businesses. The placement of these programs within a 2-story volume behind the building’s floor-to-ceiling glass lobby with its grand stair presents a highly visible new identity for the school, encourages public access, and provides a campus focal point for future growth.

Walkability and Individual Mobility

Mapping a strategy for multiple levels of circulation today involves rebalancing the passage of pedestrians, bicycles and other self-propelled modes with automobiles, buses and service vehicle traffic. The insertion of green space, street furniture, human-scaled ground-level building features, walls for respite and congregation, and pedestrian-exclusive bridges shape a hospitable pedestrian zone along with consistent wayfinding such as clear signage, sightlines, landmarks and lighting.

Another urban strategy that's enhancing master plan thinking is the creation of identifiable districts. These campus neighborhoods can be defined by characteristics that support program elements such as academics, athletics, student life, and arts and culture.

At Appalachian State University (ASU), campus areas allow future development to embody core university principles and initiatives:

  • Academic Core
  • River Walk
  • King Street events and conference center
  • Broyhill Innovation District
  • Recreational Village

(ASU Campus Master Plan. Robert Benson Photography.)

The elements that shape a hospital pedestrian zone stitch together these campus districts to create a unified campus experience. At NCSSM, the campus spine—or “Academic Street”—becomes a common circulation path to promote chance encounters. Trails and paths lead from the spine to other parts of campus and connect students to neighboring institutions as well as to downtown Morganton and beyond.

Green and Social Spaces

Preserving and shaping the spaces in between buildings is another critical aspect of master planning today. Allowing for pop-up parks, green space and plazas accommodates different functions such as concerts, open-air markets, events, outdoor classes and overflow parking. Buildings and open spaces are juxtaposed to maintain views and foster connection to nature.

[Related: 5 Things to Consider When Turning Your Rooftop into Usable Space)

The ubiquitous campus quad or a central commons becomes one part of a network of planned spaces, both interior and exterior, that address the increasing importance of social interaction in learning communities. These spaces allow students to feel better connected and allow learning to extend beyond classroom walls.

Sustainability, Wellness and Resiliency

The conversation around sustainability and green design has evolved to more directly address the health and wellness of individuals and communities. It’s no longer enough to integrate best practices in environmental sustainability into long-term planning.

At the forefront of our thinking are approaches focused on human wellness that encourage activity and provide space for contemplation, recreation and relaxation. Community resiliency is ensured through “smart” systems that monitor and control utilities and integrate regional stormwater plans to ensure ecological benefits to the larger region and help mitigate the impact of severe weather patterns.


Ensuring a secure environment involves creating design, strategic and operational strategies designed to mitigate security risks, inform the campus community, secure infrastructure and deter criminal behavior. At Bullis, the over-100-acre campus includes playing fields, open spaces, streams and conservation easements.

(Bullis. Robert Benson Photography.)

University campuses are infinitely larger, and securing such vast area perimeters is often logistically and economically unfeasible.

Environmental design can be part of the solution: distance landscaping away from buildings; providing visual sightlines all around campus; utilizing new camera and sensor technologies in and around the buildings; and integrating coordinated, effective security protocol are all essential to long-range planning.

A Living Document

At Appalachian State University, the master planning process focused on creating a framework and setting a broad set of principles that would ensure the plan could evolve and progress as the university expands. Tools such as design standards and guidelines provide architectural, open space, street and utilities criteria for future projects. These elements aid in the creation of a campus that is both unified and adheres to ASU’s overall vision for its students’ experience and campus growth.

Well-conceived master plans must be envisioned as living, breathing documents that prepare an institution for the future, while allowing it to adapt. In the many trends in master plan thinking outlined here, the process will also, ultimately, define the experience of students and the academic community.

The overarching trend is to create a framework that’s humanistic, community-centric, and inspires new and future ways of learning.

About Turan Duda, FAIA, Founding Principal Duda|Paine

Turan’s conceptual focus and dynamic design approach have led the creation of innovative projects for a wide spectrum of building types, scales and purposes. He is also an advocate for place-making, whether the location is urban or a sylvan site. Turan is reshaping building form to meet the demands of today’s communities, foster a sustainable world and inspire the future and is a frequent speaker on topics such as design methodology and the role of public space within private development.

About Jeffrey Paine, AIA, Founding Principal Duda|Paine

Jeff is a facile leader and thinker, with a ‘long view’ of the impact of design on communities and economic growth. He leads the technical execution of every Duda|Paine project. His focus on the dynamic contributions of client representatives, members of the design team and individuals at all levels of expertise ensures inclusion of the diverse perspectives that fuel the firm’s highly effective design process. He has led the design of iconic, transformational buildings for organizations and communities throughout the US and abroad.

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