A typical spring afternoon in Ann Arbor: a Frisbee whizzing through the air in the Arb; a lone student resting beneath a tree in the Diag, listlessly flipping through the pages of a worn paperback; open lawns scattered throughout campus dotted with hundreds basking in the sun.
Appreciated by most but understood by few, these green spaces of campus often go unnoticed by the University community beyond the spring and summer months. But for Ken Rapp, the University’s landscape architect, these areas of refuge are more than just a comfortable place to lounge when the sun reemerges in Ann Arbor after dreary, gray winters — they are his life’s work.
Rapp has been employed by the University for 23 years and has seen the campus evolve in a variety of ways.
“There’s not a place on campus where you can’t go to and turn in a circle and see something that I’ve done over that time frame,” he said.
His work, landscape architecture, refers to all aspects of the landscape — from the plants and trees, to the walkways and fountains — and the socio-behavioral and aesthetic outcomes of these outdoor spaces.
The University first made a major investment in landscape architecture in the 1960’s, hiring the firm Johnson, Johnson & Roy to guide the development of the University’s master plan in 1963. And since then, Rapp and his predecessors have been constantly planning, designing and redesigning the University’s landscape.
Joan Nassauer, a professor in the School of Natural Resources, said the University’s landscape exists to make a lasting first impression and to please those who are on campus every day.
“We come here sort of with heightened expectations,” she said of the campus community. “(Landscape architecture) creates an opportunity to organize the outdoor spaces of a campus in a way that is essentially welcoming to people who are here for a brief time and that is stimulating in all the right ways for people that are here using their minds and growing their minds.”
She also noted that the landscape of a university’s campus is vastly different from other types of landscape architecture, such as at corporate buildings or malls.
“The type of environment that would be (stimulating for) people who are here engaged in a scholarly endeavor is different from the kinds of environment that would be stimulating for people who are, say, going shopping,” she said.
Subsequently, Nassauer added, the type of planning and research that goes into designing a university campus differs dramatically from other public spaces.
Mary Carol Hunter, another professor in the School of Natural Resources, said a campus environment is unique in that people actually live within the space rather than just observe it.
“For campus you want to have space for people to just be,” Hunter said. “So you don’t want to have it all shrubbed up and stuff like that. You want to have spaces that people can move in and out of and through very easily.”
For example, Rapp said the grassy knolls between Dennison and East Hall used to be lined with shrubs, but he decided to remove them to make the spaces more accessible. He said the small change has had a huge impact on how students use the space, which is now almost always occupied in the spring and summer.
“Sometimes it’s a big change and sometimes it’s a little change, where you just notice that this would be much better used if we were to rearrange this or change something — make it different,” he said.
Rapp said the University assigns three levels of priority to areas on campus. Some places on and around North Campus are classified as level three, and receive the lowest level of maintenance to preserve their natural state.
Areas like the Diag and the Law Quad, which are more trafficked and historically significant, receive top levels of maintenance. In selecting these areas — deemed “more iconic spaces” — Rapp said he thinks about what places are campus attractions.
“When we started developing the priority levels, we looked at where are the places on campus that are destination points,” he said. “Where do people come to see things on campus?”
As a member of the Midwest Landscape Architects and Ground Managers — an informal group that meets once a year — Rapp is looking to host this year’s annual event here at the University this June. He plans to give a tour of campus and explain University practices as they relate to architectural landscaping.
Many Big Ten schools are represented in the group, along with the University of Nebraska, the University of Missouri and other large universities across the country. When compared to other campuses Rapp has visited in past years as a member of the group, he believes the University’s is one of the best in terms of overall look and layout.
Slightly removed from campus, Rapp’s office, along with that of the Grounds Department, sits in a building on East Madison. With a budget of $750,000 a year for internal projects, the University covers the cost of plants and installation labor. Rapp works on about half of the University’s landscape projects, while the other half is contracted out to independent landscape architecture firms.
One of these firms, Johnson, Johnson & Roy, was founded in part by Bill Johnson, a former dean of the School of Natural Resources at the University. The firm got its start working for the University, and now heads up projects for multiple college campuses around the country.
The University has hired JJR for a variety of recent projects, including the site design for the Ross School of Business and the new Hill Dining Center. The work involved in these projects includes designing the plans for pavement and landscaping.
Oliver Kiley, a site designer for JJR, graduated from the School of Natural Resources’ graduate program in 2008.
He said it’s sometimes difficult for people to understand the scope of landscape architecture, noting that most immediately think about residential landscapes rather than urban landscapes like the university campuses.
“If you say that you’re an architect, people are really clear on what that is. If you say you’re a landscape architect, people think, ‘Oh, you’re out planting flowers at someone’s house,’ ” he said.
Before becoming professionals, landscape architects must pass a national exam. Kiley will take the first part of his qualifying test in March. Nassauer, who served as Kiley’s graduate advisor, said that the exam is in place to protect public health, as landscape architects often create master city plans that include the designation of roads and buildings.
Kiley said that students are sometimes oblivious to the history of the landscape of campus. For example, he said, the pedestrian mall in between the Dana Building and the Dennison Building used to be a road, but due to safety concerns with so many students in the area, the University decided to remove the road.
When a new building is constructed or a new space opens on campus, Rapp’s team typically heads the landscape planning, unless the University decides to outsource the project. Many projects begin in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction department of the University, and then the plans make their way to Rapp’s desk.
Once his team decides what spaces should be occupied by plants, grass and sidewalks, the Grounds Department’s Forestry and Horticulture staff selects specific types and species of plants for the area.
Rapp’s team is currently working on a project to renovate the courtyard in the Michigan League. The courtyard is only accessible by a set of steps, and the University would like to make it wheelchair-accessible by adding a ramp.
“It’s a little tricky because people have strong feelings about that space and there’s a lot of historical character over there,” Rapp said of the League. “So we’re trying to be very careful and respectful to that while we modernize it and make it more useful to that new use, new requirements.”
Rapp said his job often requires him to consider the historical character of campus because when alumni return to Ann Arbor, they want it to look the same as when they left.
“No matter how new something is, we try to make it look as if it has always been there,” Rapp said.
In the two decades Rapp has been with the University, researchers like Nassauer have been working to find more environmentally sustainable ways to design landscapes and have introduced higher standards for successful landscapes.
Nassauer came to the University with the intention to continue her work on more environmentally sensitive practices in landscape architecture. In her time here, she developed the term “cultural sustainability” — maintaining a balance between environmentally sustainable practices and fulfilling the public’s expectations of an appealing landscape.
According to Nassauer, the University has a great opportunity to embrace this new research and teach these practices through example to the rest of the country.
“You don’t get people to change by saying (they) should like something different. You get people to change by showing them something different that they discover they have a positive response to,” she said. “(There is an) enormous opportunity for the University to construct a landscape that helps people see the possibilities in a different way.”
Rapp believes North Campus is the ideal area to introduce these new practices. In the process of trying to give North Campus its own distinct identity, the University has increased measures that emphasize its natural environment.
The Grounds Department has stopped mowing one million square feet of grass on North Campus because the field was not being used. The grass will help retain storm water more effectively if it is left un-mowed.
Two years ago, the University completed a burnout on North Campus to mimic the Earth’s natural cycle. By purposefully creating a fire, humans can refresh the nutrients in the soil, benefiting the plant life in the area.
Budget cuts within Rapp’s department have also spurred sustainability in a roundabout way. Last July, the University cut funds for annual bulbs — flowers that bloom seasonally and are subsequently removed.
The University typically plants these bulbs in the spring to bloom in the fall, and then replaces them with bulbs that will bloom in the spring. This past fall, the flowers were removed on schedule, but no new bulbs were planted.
Rapp said that while students will most likely notice the lack of colorful flowers on campus around the time of commencement, the change will save the University $185,000 a year.
“For years, particularly right by Burton Tower, we’ve tried to choose tulip bulbs that will bloom the exact week of commencement so they’re in full bloom,” he said. “I’ve seen thousands of students get their picture taken in front of those tulip bulbs.”
Despite the lack of photo opportunities, Rapp has taken a positive attitude toward the change, saying it will force his department to examine the practice of taking things in and out of the ground. He said that many of the annual bulbs his team was planting were meant to grow in the tropics, and the practice of letting them die and then pulling them up is not a very environmentally sensitive process.
“Our goal is to still keep a lot of color on campus because it definitely adds to the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the campus, but I think we’ll be looking at trying to do it in different ways,” he said.
Though students will likely miss the color provided by the annual bulbs, according to researchers, the change should not have an effect on the mood of people on campus.
Professors Steve and Rachel Kaplan have done extensive research on the effect of the natural environment on humans. They said that while color is attractive, what the mind really responds to is the presence of trees.
By studying public housing in Chicago, the Kaplans found that residents who had trees visible from their windows showed a higher capacity to make long-term goals and greater civility than residents who did not have visible trees.
They also found that students suffering from mental fatigue felt better after taking a walk outside, stating that these students reported much more energy after taking a study break to stroll around outside than they did after taking a study break to watch television.
Despite these positive effects, the Kaplans said the importance of seeing the natural world, namely trees, is still largely unrealized by most, including officials at the University.
Steve Kaplan said that while some are coming around to the positive effects of trees, the University is not among that group.
“There’s growing awareness about this kind of thing in the U.S. and worldwide,” he said. “So we get swamped with e-mails from people who are interested in this sort of thing. But whatever the routes are, they don’t include the University.”
Steve and Rachel Kaplan have been at the University for 52 years. They said in that time, they have watched campus become less and less focused on the natural environment.
“It’s easy to lose track of how important the trees are,” Steve Kaplan said. “And you would think since there’s a lot of mental fatigue at a university, it would be a high priority for things that include trees, and it’s not clear that that’s the case.”
One aspect of campus that has remained focused on the natural environment, however, is the Arb. Bob Grese, director of Nichol’s Arboretum and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, said the space often serves as diversion for students.
“I think the Arb is an escape for students. It’s a place to hang out. It’s a place to get away from some of the hustle and bustle of campus,” he said. “It’s a place for immersing yourself in a more natural setting, taking walks, all of those things.”
One fourth of the Arb is owned by the city of Ann Arbor and the University owns the remaining three-quarters. Because of this division, Grese said he works to serve not only the University community, but also the greater Ann Arbor community.
The budget for both the Arb and the Botanical Gardens is $1.5 million per year.
Grese has been working with the designers of the new C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital and Women’s Hospital, which is being built adjacent to the Arb, to make sure patients have a good view of the scenery.
“The idea is to try and encourage them to get outside the hospital, and then potentially they might take walks in the Arboretum as well,” he said.
There is also a strip of land between the Arb and the new building that Grese is designing as a children’s garden. He said he would like to see a space that is colorful and welcoming to patients, siblings and parents — maybe even including a treehouse.
“We’re trying to make it a really child-friendly space so it would be really enticing and would look fun from the windows too, so that if you couldn’t get outside, it would be fun to watch from the windows,” Grese said.
In this planning with the new hospital, Grese is implementing the results of research that the Kaplans have known for years — that the natural environment has a positive effect on humans — to lift the moods of hospital patients. But even for students who may not realize they’re being influenced, the campus’ landscape architecture has a daily impact.
“A lot of times the way the outside looks to you actually does have an influence on you and its got the capacity to make you feel better,” Hunter said. “That’s one of the things that landscape architects take into consideration when they’re doing their designs for outdoor space.”