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Researcher uses campus photography to discover ideal college campus

Tuesday, June 18, 2013



MANHATTAN -- A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Sarah Flynn's pictures may lead to changes that could inspire thousands of future leaders and innovators.

Flynn, a 2013 Kansas State University master's graduate in landscape architecture, Yorkville, Ill., used photography to research how to improve the ecological and social performances of certain areas of college campuses. Using Kansas State University's Coffman Commons, an outdoor plaza at the heart of the university's campus, Flynn collected photographic and written responses from faculty, staff and students on how to improve both the ecology and beauty of this particular campus spot.

"Universities are institutions made up of people who foster the ingenuity, creativity and innovation that will lead our country," Flynn said. "I believe exterior environments should reflect the same forward thinking to match a university's initiatives."

Some college campuses do not perform to their fullest potential socially or ecologically. For example, Flynn said, Kansas State University's landscape has maintained a 19th century garden-like aesthetic that does not always account for its aspirations.

Flynn's research looked at redefining a campus' aesthetic using green infrastructure components to increase its ecological performance. For example, water conservation could include rainwater harvesting or rain gardens. Coffman Commons was chosen as the research site because of its central location and its potential to highlight rainwater as it slopes downward.

A campus landscape can improve by designing a community amenity that celebrates ecological processes and involves the community in the design process, Flynn said. To do this, she asked members of the campus community to take pictures of the parts of Coffman Commons that moved them and to journal their responses.

"While design is the primary staple of the landscape architecture profession, photography is still emerging," she said. "Photography can be an excellent means of discovery."

Flynn collected the participants' photographs and notes, and then analyzed what landscape or subjects they included in their pictures. She said the participants' interests generally remained on the surface features of the site, including trees, other vegetation and the walls of surrounding historical buildings.

"While it didn't surprise me that these characteristics were of interest, I was surprised at the lack of people in the participants' photographs," Flynn said. "I equate social living into landscape aesthetics; people are the ones who can appreciate aesthetics, thus they are a part of it. However, rarely were people in the pictures."

Through her research, Flynn observed that areas such as Coffman Commons would ideally include several key aesthetic features, including:

* Visible water systems, such as rain gardens. Flynn said she believes storm water shouldn't be hidden, but celebrated and used in design.

* Opportunities for emerging research.

* Promotion of social engagement, such as elevated lawns with seating.

In her design for Coffman Commons, Flynn also included limestone seating to celebrate the region's natural beauty, vegetation to soften the line between the commons and buildings, and inscriptions honoring James Coffman, the former provost for whom the commons is named.

"Beauty is appreciated, but beauty that performs socially and ecologically is exciting," Flynn said. "The next generation of innovators and researchers walk through college campuses every day. The landscape should inspire them and reflect their creativity while offering opportunities to heighten user senses, spark curiosity and provide relaxation."

Flynn said if students experienced this kind of landscape while in college, they could bring this appreciation and expectation into their living environments and careers. Additionally, she hopes her research will serve as encouragement for other landscape architects to use photography as a means of discovery.

Flynn completed this research for her master's thesis at Kansas State University. Her major professor was Laurence Clement, associate professor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning. Flynn currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she works at a landscape architecture firm. 


Sarah Flynn 

News tip

Colorado Springs, Colo., and Yorkville, Ill.

Written by

Megan Saunders

At a glance

A recent graduate uses photography to study campus landscapes.

Notable quote

"Beauty is appreciated, but beauty that performs socially and ecologically is exciting."

– Sarah Flynn, May 2013 Master of Landscape Architecture graduate