Take It Outside to Help Solve Campus Space Shortages

Published July 26, 2021
By Chris Morett, PhD, MPP
Planning Types: Campus Planning

Colleges and universities are rightfully proud of the outdoor spaces on and near campus—and acutely aware of their allure. If there is any doubt, take a glance at their marketing materials full of picturesque quads, bustling urban backdrops, parks, gardens, and more. These settings are among our most cherished amenities.

It’s time, though, for outdoor spaces to shift from a luxury to a necessity. That’s because activating outdoor locations can help mitigate the space shortage that will improve but may not fully abate on campuses this fall. These outdoor options might be specialized destinations that host specific activities or more common spots where folks can collaborate, teach, relax, socialize, or work independently.

The expanded use of outdoor spaces can help meet a current challenge, but this should also spark a longer-term strategic effort to better utilize their potential for enhancing the student academic experience. The spaces open up opportunities for alternate pedagogical approaches, get students moving mentally and physically, encourage experiential learning, and create bonding experiences.

The activation of campus spaces requires a concerted effort consisting of two thrusts: ensuring outdoor assets are prepared for wider usage and creating the awareness, motivation, and capacity for individuals and entities to use those spaces. Most of the suggestions require modest, if any, budgetary outlay.

Ensuring Outdoor Assets Are Prepared for Wider Usage

Many of these sites are already set for scaled-up usage, and improvements or preparations are optional or can be phased in. These might include:

  • Enhanced Wi-Fi signal outdoors
  • Directional, informational, and educational signage
  • Lighting
  • Space reservation policies and procedures
  • Parking expansion or upgrades—such as drainage to prevent a days-long flood zone after a heavy rain in unpaved parking areas
  • Transportation to hard-to-reach locations
  • Bike racks, bike storage lockers, and bike and scooter rental services
  • Accessibility measures, including but not limited to wheelchair access, respite seating, and design for a range of visual and auditory capabilities (Accessibility measures often have wider benefits. If you can hear a speaker or a movie soundtrack but still find yourself reading subtitles, as my colleagues in disability services have taught me occurs frequently, you know what I mean. In some cases, accessibility is a matter of the location’s details. A class held outside on the grass should also have an accessible approach and, for example, an integrated hardtop area so that crossing the grass isn’t required.)
  • Personnel to provide security and upkeep, and to act as hosts and guides
  • Furniture
  • Restroom facilities—think portable, not palatial
  • Trash and recycling receptacles
  • Outdoor blackboards
  • Tents and coverings

Creating Awareness, Motivation, and Capacity for Using Outdoor Spaces

A Strategic Approach

Outdoor spaces are overdue for more deliberate and robust utilization, and the physical and organizational enhancements we make now will help catalyze this. While preparing for the fall, we should take a long view of planning investments and thinking about the role of outdoor spaces in the “Ecosystem for Learning”—the overall ecosystem in which the student academic and developmental experience occurs.

Existing and Tailored Communication and Outreach

As for the range of actions we can take, institutions can start with existing approaches, such as using internal communications tools and channels, to drive awareness and enthusiasm for using outdoor spaces. Campus leaders can model this. The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) at Rutgers University has a web page dedicated to “Beyond the Classroom” offerings.

Whoever leads the outdoors charge can also reach out to individuals who are most likely to organize activities. These include faculty, who can hold class sessions, review sessions, and office hours outside, and advisors who might hold outdoor consultations. On the student side, student government leaders, resident assistants, officers of student clubs, and fraternity and sorority leadership are key nodes.

A Searchable Database of Locations and Activities

Institutions should compile a single list of outdoor spaces that includes information on available amenities, directions, parking, capacity, etc. A plus would be to include details on course-related activities and assignments that the spaces support. This will help faculty who want to send their students outside but aren’t sure how to go about it.

Organizing this content into a searchable database, which entails some very straightforward development work, would significantly bolster the uptake of the information collected. Because time until fall is short, focus on the highest impact spaces and work from there (although there’s still plenty of time to get dozens or more spaces logged).

With such a database, users could search by activity type—say, “botany” or “plant identification”—and see a listing of the places, such as gardens, parks, and groves of trees, where that activity could occur. Remember that there are activities that can occur in many places on and near campus, rather than in one specific spot.

For example, Bio-Blitz activities (as described on this National Geographic site), such as the ones that use iNaturalist, entail the general public documenting the species they see across various locations. This has educational benefits, connects people with their environment, and creates useful scientific data. Another example might be a database search that returns multiple areas with crowds of people that introductory psychology students can use for observational studies of human interaction.

Outdoor Course Activities and Assignments: Instructional Design and Incentives

Getting instructors to utilize outdoor spaces means promoting awareness and capacity-building, e.g., giving them or helping them develop ideas for assignments. Instructional designers have a role to play here. I can also easily imagine a search-a-thon, even via a video meeting, where folks get together and scour the internet or brainstorm among themselves for 45 minutes or an hour to come up with outdoor activities and assignments. Ideas would abound and—one hopes—also be passed along to whomever is creating the database of outdoor activities and assignments.

Incentives may help, too. Rutgers’ SEBS offered a pilot Campus as Classroom grant program a year ago. The grants were modest, but could be used to cover the cost of activities, transportation, or lunch. And while a professor might not be moved by $1,000 in her research account, watch her jump at free pizza for her students!


Is it too cold to do this on some campuses? Mostly no, at least not in the continental United States. I have colleagues in New England and upstate New York—where snow in October does happen—who had tents up on their campuses last fall. Plenty of activities can still go on in the cold with proper attire. Even if large-group meetings are harder to pull off as temperatures drop, early-semester outdoor gatherings will continue to pay dividends because of the social connections they helped initiate.

A Collaborative Success for the Taking

This effort can be an exciting, empowering collaboration of colleagues across the organization: facilities and grounds, information technology, student health, academic advisement and support, faculty and staff, instructional designers, and students. Others, who have buildings with which they are particularly identified—be it an academic department or libraries—can think about their own front yards, so to speak.

And it’s hard to imagine this effort not having at least some success. So, if the usefulness of the outdoors itself isn’t convincing enough, maybe the chance to have a pre-packaged, cross-organizational slam dunk as we reconvene on campus and reignite our face-to-face community will serve as motivation.

Want to learn more?