Caring for Campus
U of I’s iconic trees and beautiful landscaping still follow a blueprint more than 100 years old.
On a warm day in late October, sunshine breaks through the foliage of trees lining the University of Idaho’s Hello Walk as fall leaves drift lazily to the ground.
A group of prospective students and their families admire the fall colors, snapping cellphone pictures to capture the beauty of the expanse of lawn in front of the Administration Building.
U of I tour guide and student Shannon Brink leads the group along the meandering path through the trees, giving fun facts about the university’s landscape and its inhabitants — how the “Hello Walk” was named for early traditions of always greeting one another on the path; and how John Charles Olmsted created a vision for the Moscow campus that has guided construction and landscaping for more than 100 years.
A Legacy of Beauty
Olmsted and his brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., founded the Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm in Brookline, Massachusetts in the late 1800s. The firm gained a reputation for urban park and college campus design. Olmsted created a comprehensive plan for the University of Washington, in addition to the Washington State Capital grounds and several parks in Seattle. He designed the campus and development plan for Oregon State University in 1906.
Olmsted created the first comprehensive campus development plan for U of I in 1908. He had a clear vision for what a university should look and feel like.
“The university as a whole, both grounds and buildings, without any suggestion of lavishness or over decoration, ought to exhibit clearly, in all its outward appearance, the fact that it is the place of work and of residence of cultivated and careful people,” he said in a letter to the-U of I President James MacLean.
Ray Pankopf, director of Architectural and Engineering Services, has been following Olmstead’s vision since he joined the university in 1991. Today, the university’s Long Range Campus Development Plan provides the details for managing change and preserving the natural beauty and open spaces the Moscow campus is known for. His job is to determine how campus grows, with the placement of new buildings and how the landscaping fits into that image.
A good example is the extension of the academic mall across Sixth Street to the Student Recreation Center.
“The master plan called for its extension, the creation of the LLCs and placing the Student Recreation Center at the south end of the mall,” he said. “As we’re trying to knit a building into the fabric of campus, we will have landscaping associated with that.”
Pankopf said trees were planted in between the Memorial Gym and the Student Recreation Center to provide a clear path and line of sight between the two buildings.
There are eight large-scale goals in the development plan that dictate how each aspect will develop over the years — land use, transportation and parking, open space, compact academic core, residential campus, residential facilities, utility infrastructure and space.
Pankopf said the proposed building’s use and the goals of the development plan dictate where it is placed. After determining the placement of the new building, Pankopf and his team move on to the landscaping around the space. This includes planning hardscape — sidewalks and plazas — as well as softscape — trees, plants and foliage.
Pankopf returns to the master plan and determines how the hard and soft scape can be used to meet the goals of the plan.
“Plant materials can be used in an architectural sense,” he said. “Plant materials have value in defining outdoor rooms, screens, creating drama, creating overhead planes, rows and emphasizing view lines.”
Pankopf said he considers plants that can help him reach architectural goals, in addition to plants that are aesthetically pleasing.
“We’ve used trees as edging along streets to define that edge or view corridor,” he said. “Some of the trees that are planted along Perimeter Drive, by the front of the soccer field, are golden-rain trees. There’s another tree that has a silvery leaf and has silver in its Latin name. They were selected to reflect the school colors.”
Predicting the Unpredictable
David Rauk is tasked with the care of the Moscow campus landscape.
“We’re very proud of our landscape and what we inherited.,” he said. “We try our best to keep this special environment attractive and safe .”
As the campus horticulturalist for Landscape and Exterior Services, he oversees the planning and planting of around 75 new trees each season, removing around 50 trees per year, and collaborating with contractors on campus to protect the landscaping.
Ensuring the trees grow healthy and safe is his No. 1 goal.
“No. 2 is to plant a diverse population of trees, trying to get as many different species as possible. Flowery ornamentals, large shade trees, evergreen trees, all those kinds ,” he said. “We’re always trying to improve the safety factor and the aesthetics.”
With such a large collection of old trees at U of I, Rauk said he spends most of his time on tree risk assessment. The tree care team maintains an informal list of trees to check on a regular basis.
They also perform routine maintenance, like keeping branches from interfering with road signs and ensuring clear lines of site on campus.
Some problems aren’t as predictable as age.
“When a windstorm comes through campus, large branches, sometimes entire trees break off or are left hanging, so a quick campus tour of that damage is performed” he said.
One of the challenges of Rauk’s job is the longevity of trees. Plants growing in difficult sites can affect their ability to grow to full size and become healthy specimens. Rauk said this happens more frequently than he would like.
“It’s part of the process,” he said. “We understand that trees will sometimes grow into very large sizes. The landscape will change based on new sidewalks, new parking lots, new wings of buildings and new buildings. That changes the feel of the landscape. We’re always adapting.”
For example, in August 2016, U of I and Avista removed 33 trees along Perimeter Drive because the trees were too close to an underground, high-pressure natural gas pipeline owned by Avista.
Tree roots can wrap around gas pipelines, damaging protective coating and creating a safety hazard. The trees were replanted, but the view from above the Kibbie Dome was changed significantly.
“Removal of these trees will change the view along Perimeter Drive for many years to come,” said Brian Johnson, associate vice president of facilities at U of I. “But the new trees will provide enjoyment for generations of Vandals.”
Supporting Recruitment Efforts
Making sure U of I’s trees and landscape remain healthy does more than just improve campus aesthetics: It also garners the institution national recognition and contributes to recruitment efforts.
In 2017, BuzzFeed named UI the most beautiful campus in Idaho.
“One of the most beautiful spots on campus (and the best place to de-stress during finals period) is what's known as "Tree City." It's a 65-acre arboretum and botanical garden featuring gardens, ponds, and trees from around the world,” the article said.
Travel + Leisure concurred, also naming U of I the best-looking Idaho college campus.
When giving campus tours, guides are quick to point out the beauty of the university and how the mature trees and ivy-covered buildings contribute to the feeling of a traditional college environment.
“For students who are looking for that iconic college experience, you can’t beat the U of I campus for beauty,” said Ashley Morehouse, director of orientation programming at U of I. “We hear frequently from parents and prospective students that they fell in love with Moscow as soon as they stepped on to our campus.”
The well-maintained campus helps prospective students envision themselves as Vandals.
“What we provide on campus is a way to entice folks to say, ‘Yeah, this looks like a pretty cool place to be. I’d like to be here,’” Rauk said.
Article by Tess Fox, University Communications & Marketing.
Published in April 2018.