For new master plan, MNLA embraced Smith College’s ethos of participation.
By Jonathan Lerner
In 1871, Sophia Smith devoted an inherited fortune to realizing her dream, a women’s college to equal those for men. Today the institution bearing her name enrolls some 2,100 female undergraduates (and a few hundred grad students, including some men). Smith College is in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town of about 30,000 where idealistic visions flow luxuriant. In the 1840s, a short-lived utopian community tried raising silkworms there and spawned an improbable effort to grow sugar beets to undermine the South’s slavery-dependent agriculture economy. Several Northampton hospitals once specialized hopefully in “the water cure” for ailments like scarlet fever. The town was also a significant locus of abolitionism and a node on the Underground Railroad. The college has a close relationship with the city and region, physically and culturally. Its 147-acre campus lacks a defined boundary. Instead, on three sides it blends into adjacent residential streets and borders a commercial center. The fourth side slopes down to a bend in a river, across which are the green expanses of a floodplain (the college sports field), a wooded ridge, and, in the near distance, the Holyoke and Tom mountains. The river was dammed to power mills, and the resulting oxbow impoundment, which now provides flood control, is a Smith icon, lending an elysian feel to views of the campus and the memories of generations of alumnae. It is called, without irony, Paradise Pond.
Many students at elite colleges like Smith are idealistic activists. If a wrong can be righted, why not? “You’re at a stage in your life when you realize you’re part of a much bigger world, so your consciousness expands greatly. Students feel a call to action,” says Signe Nielsen, FASLA, herself a 1972 Smith graduate. Studying at Smith encourages this inclination. There is a “culture of consultation and involvement. It’s become an expectation,” says Dano Weisbord, the college’s associate vice president for campus planning and sustainability. So, an unusually strong community input process accompanied the research for a new landscape master plan by MNLA, the firm of which Nielsen is a founding principal. “The campus is deeply tied to the sense of identity of the institution,” Weisbord says. “You don’t go messing with this without significant engagement.”
Smith’s campus design had previously been addressed by a number of illustrious landscape architects, though their counsel wasn’t always taken, and it has been compromised by fragmentary incremental change. The original 1893 design was by the Olmsted firm, in its picturesque aesthetic, but it was not fully implemented. Curving drives and some lawn-and-tree spaces survive, though many views they would have privileged are now obstructed. “We do have our original tree set,” Weisbord says. (Smith’s campus is a Level III Arboretum, which designates sites with at least 500 species of trees, a curator, and substantial educational programming.) “But they’re all end of life, 120 years old. That’s a strange moment. And a huge opportunity.”
A 1914 plan by John Nolen proposed overlaying a more formal organization. It was not implemented in the core campus, though his concept was used for the Quad, a symmetrical, architecturally traditional dorm and courtyard complex. The college did adopt a plan in 1996, meant to channel the Olmsted sensibility, created by Rolland/Towers (precursor to Towers|Golde) in collaboration with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. (Shavaun Towers, FASLA, was then the college landscape architect. Oberlander and Towers both also graduated from Smith.) But over the years, factors such as infill construction, piecemeal property acquisitions, and the intrusion of cars and scattered parking lots have created circulation disconnects, pedestrian-vehicle conflict points, interrupted views, and other problems.
Two sets of concerns that may have been lower profile a few decades ago are acute today and can be tackled —if not necessarily resolved—by landscape planning: climate change impacts and diversity and inclusion. The most recent available data indicates that 36 percent of Smith’s students are people of color or biracial. There is also considerable diversity in identity expression; students live in 41 “houses,” some with as few as 10 residents, that enable selection by affinity. There are houses that “cultivate and foster a sense of belonging” for Black students as well as for other students of color, for those who abstain from drug and alcohol use, and for those who wish to share in a food co-op, for example. Addressing a third pressing concern, “Smith has been thinking critically about how the infrastructure facilitates learning,” says Tim Johnson, the director of the college’s botanic garden. These issues prompted the master plan’s trio of thematic goals: The campus should be adaptive, inclusive, and—via the landscape itself—educational.
A flash point regarding inclusion occurred in 2018, when a Black student eating lunch in a closed dorm was asked to leave by a janitor and a security guard, both white. “There was a huge hullabaloo,” Nielsen says. “The administration was trying to heal that scar. One thought was if students would come together around a cause, it might help.” It surely couldn’t have hurt that the master plan process, begun the following year, involved so much of the Smith community in a creative and forward-looking endeavor.
Smith has a landscape studies program, offering a minor in the subject. Research projects conducted by a dozen students preceding the master plan effort, including a gap analysis of the 1996 plan, informed the request for qualifications from consultants. Once MNLA had been selected, four students worked closely with the firm to sound out student desires, making class presentations, holding house meetings, and tabling at the Campus Center. One of those, Greta Mundt, now a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, notes the educational value of this outreach itself: “People had strong opinions about this place we live and learn in, but hadn’t always realized that there were changes that could be made, or what kind of thought goes into it.”
Multiple tactics, beyond that student-to-student contact, were used. Eight maps, each addressing a question such as “What routes do you take?” or “Where are the areas where you feel uncomfortable?” were displayed at the Campus Center along with color-keyed stickers for comments. These drew nearly 800 responses. MNLA produced three editions of an online magazine, Groundswell, that included interactive maps, renderings of possible interventions, explanations of the planning process, and preference surveys. For example, one was “Should Smith prioritize preserving the extensive use of lawns or creating ecologically performative landscapes?” followed by a dozen possible actions. These questions were also posed to people with institutional relationships to the college, including Northampton’s planning department, the college art museum, the student government, and elsewhere. Instagram posts received thousands of views and comments. Input came from alumnae and Northampton residents and from faculty and staff. “The unkempt river’s edge and maintenance area give a bad first impression to visiting teams,” someone in the athletics department wrote. From the astronomy department: “People and plants need darkness. Lighting should not focus on more light but on the right light uniformity.” A staffer in events management said, “There has been a tremendous growth in outdoor programming. We need support for these events, including water and power.” A nifty low-tech engagement effort was collaging. Students could place cutouts of movable furniture, hammocks, interpretive signage, sculptures, and more onto photos of important campus locations, and could cross out things they didn’t like. “Not everybody is very talkative, but give them paper and cutouts and glue, and they’ll sit there for an hour,” Nielsen says.
Today, any campus plan by competent landscape architects would include strategies such as eliminating invasive species, specifying porous paving, and ensuring Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
What kinds of unexpected needs and suggestions did this unusually extensive inquiry reveal? “We came to understand the desire for what I think of as neighborhood hubs,” Johnson says, “and for increased and movable seating, the idea that individuals should get a degree of autonomy in altering the experience.” Similarly, the plan recognizes affinity groups’ desire for intimate and ceremonial spaces. It also proposes transforming a central lawn into a representation of the campus’s landscape history. “Part of the sense of place and identity is interest in the history of the place itself,” Weisbord says. “I don’t know if that would have come from any planner doing this work without the engagement.” This space would nod to Olmsted by realigning the curve of a drive, reference local Indigenous history with forms such as traditional planting mounds, and reflect the 1996 plan with a flowering understory of shade-tolerant species. It would also introduce contemporary features like movable furniture, a bioswale edge, sculpture installations, and interpretive signage.
Nielsen was surprised to learn that some students felt intimidated by gates and fences, even the low post-and-chain barriers that can be easily stepped over that surround some lawns. “I know what it means culturally, but this is the first project that ever asked me to think about what inclusiveness means spatially,” she says. “What says to you, ‘You don’t belong’?” She also didn’t expect that in considering alternate visions for 12 key locations—deemed to be light, intermediate, or intensive alterations—many people preferred the third. “There’s a real desire for the campus to embrace sustainability, habitat, a more interesting learning environment.
“We did finally go out on a limb and suggest that they eliminate the pond and renaturalize the river,” Nielsen says. “The alumnae? Of course: ‘Forget about it!’” (Perhaps that reluctance is also idealism, but the idealism of nostalgia.)
As to the goal of landscape as education, there are calls for spaces that work as outdoor classrooms and interactive signage. More subtle but more intriguing is the understanding that “you walk across our campus and say, what’s important? Today what you would take away is, ‘Specimen trees and turfgrass is the way to do this; I know because that’s what Smith is doing,’” Weisbord says. “But a landscape that shows where stormwater is going, that plants may be groves of trees rather than [single species], indicates that these are the ways nature works. You don’t even need to go into the classroom to understand.”
In addition to the light, intermediate, and intensive options, the plan proposes modest, inexpensive pilot projects such as a butterfly garden that will give grounds staff a chance to learn meadow maintenance. A driveway turnaround will be repurposed into a gathering and performance space, a tactical urbanism action with paint, planters, furniture, and a stage. The plan was also delivered with a staggeringly detailed 357-page implementation and management guide that works something like an algorithm: Every action is related to multiple others. As in, if you do A, it’s also an opportunity to do B and C, and you really must do D.
The plan “has a couple of big ideas, but it’s designed to give us a lot of flexibility as we look ahead to 20 years that are going to be very volatile environmentally, economically, and socially. This is a dynamic plan that’s going to help us navigate the uncertainty,” Johnson says. “But in some ways, it’s anticlimactic. Our community saw it unfolding in real time.”
LAM contributing editor Jonathan Lerner’s novel Lily Narcissus will be out in October from Unsolicited Press.