Several of the campus heritage plans funded by the Getty Foundation served as laboratories for applying the relatively new field of cultural landscape preservation to campus planning. (1) With a strong landscape component, the heritage plans of The University of Kansas, Cranbrook Academy, the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere remind us that landscape preservation is inherently different from architectural preservation--and that the young field remains far richer in edifying puzzles than proven answers. The Getty Foundation-funded plans also remind us that planners should always challenge the assumed wisdom about what is "historic" and how to steward it.
Having contributed to two of the campus heritage plans as a landscape historian, I have come to learn that the rigidity of our beliefs about what is "historically significant" on a campus often leads to preserving static physical qualities with little regard for character-rich ecological systems, town-gown connections, and institutional culture. For too long, officials at state offices of historic preservation and many preservation consultants have assumed that the new sustainability and the preservation of designed campus landscapes, such as quads and formal gardens, must be at loggerheads. Recent sustainable practices, such as rainwater swales and gardens, green roofs, and permeable paving, are often forbidden in campus historic districts because they did not exist during some official "period of historic significance." Many campus leaders also still view architectural and landscape preservation as a fundamental threat to new programs and institutional competitiveness.
Yet, as a field only about 30 years old, historic landscape preservation can help planners to challenge these old assumptions that historic resources must be frozen in time. Historic landscape stewardship is fundamentally different from the preservation of buildings and the curation of museum artifacts. Like generations of students and alumni, campus landscapes, if managed well, can be self-renewing. But unlike a Greek vase or a historic classroom building, they are never quite the same at two points in time. So from what period should a specific campus landscape be preserved? Is it even possible or desirable to pose a single period of significance for a campus as a whole? In most cases, probably not. How do we frame periods of historic significance or, more realistically, successional historic landscapes within a campus as a whole?
In several of the completed campus heritage plans, we can find site-specific decisions regarding some of these landscape preservation dilemmas. Yet we should note that these strategies are choices made and not universal solutions. There remains no one set of best practices in campus landscape preservation-and this lack of resolution may be why its puzzles can enrich heritage preservation discourse overall.
How Can We Define a Campus's Essential Character?
At its core, historic landscape preservation on campus means getting to the bottom of things, knowing what is the baseline character of spaces, roads, walks, lawns, and water features that, if altered or lost, would severely harm the campus's "historic integrity." In preservation terms, "character-defining features" are the sine qua non, the bedrock that must be saved if a campus is to retain its historic integrity and eligibility for recognition such as inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Campus cultural landscapes are not discrete sets of objects but rather connected systems of spaces, topography, vegetation, and circulation. Character-defining features matter because if we can define them, we can also find ways to protect them while accommodating new programs and improving campus sustainability, safety, and accessibility. Of course, like constitutional law, the qualities of historic landscape character are entirely open to interpretation--and that is partly why they are so fascinating. …