Eda U. Gerstacker Grove exemplifies how flexible, innovative open space can serve as a catalyst for social activation and community building. This 4 acre campus quad was transformed from a barren void at the center of the University of Michigan’s North Campus, into a lush, verdant and vibrant social space for students, faculty and visitors alike. For a diverse campus community, the Grove has become a new meeting ground, a space for creative engagement that strengthens connections between and among disciplines and establishes a new heart for social interactions.

The goals for this signature open space were manifold; to create an outdoor civic space that effectively knits the campus community together, creates vitality, and encourages collaborative, multidisciplinary learning; to connect with the natural systems that underpin the campus; to provide a sense of place and a unique destination on the North Campus. In addition, flexible plaza space, integrated and movable seating, custom lighting, expanded shade, and a directive to enliven the ground plane were explicit directives from the University.

To this end, Gerstacker Grove was designed as a resilient space able to accommodate everyday activity, active play, quiet gatherings, and special events. The new green quad is marked by dramatic topographies; grassy hills rise from an otherwise flat site to form shaded overlooks and lushly planted infiltration gardens. The configuration of the central plaza, paths, landforms, flat lawns and volleyball “beach” were designed to maximize different types of programmatic use including a large tent, food trucks, event staging and market stalls with accessible power and potable water provided in key areas.

This combination of landforms and level areas deliberately creates a diversity of scale and experience throughout the space. The hillocks accommodate the gathering function of the amphitheater without creating a space that looks empty when activity is not present. And in keeping with a holistic experience, clear sight lines along the paths and through the spaces were carefully considered, including that the height of the landforms maximize at 5 feet. Sinuous benches of concrete and steel frame the walkways tracing the edges of each hill and infiltration garden, acting as retaining walls for the no-mow grass as well as drainage–all while supporting students as they lounge, sit, perch or play. The pre-cast concrete benches and curbs were specified using recycled glass instead of stone aggregate to improve the site’s carbon footprint.

To increase the site’s biodiversity, over 160 new trees were planted to create a symbolic and literal green lung for the campus. Existing trees were retained as much as possible and along with the new planting, they make the North Campus a signature wooded environment and majestic grove of trees that increases shade canopy. The Grove intentionally amplifies daily and seasonal change with flowering blooms of amelanchier trees that signal the dawn of spring in the center of the quad, and a ring of red- and orange- foliage trees vividly marking the quad in the fall. The planting selection and locations were chosen to reduce the requirement for irrigation as much as possible, with drought tolerant no-mow grass species on the landforms; tree and plant species were also selected for their tolerance of salt from the winter de-icing regime.

Lastly, the infiltration gardens play an important role in the project’s sustainability agenda in which 95% of the stormwater is captured, retained, and eventually infiltrated into the ground. This connection to the environment is brought to life with over 100 acrylic rods with LED lights distributed between moisture tolerant prickly bald cypress trees, lush ferns and ground covers in the gardens. As stormwater enters these gardens, the rods gently flicker, creating an extraordinary sensorial experience for passersby, one that links technology to environment to human life. The lights resemble reeds and are distributed between the planting in the infiltration gardens, the light level and sequence controlled by water flow, moisture and temperature sensors within the soil. However, this control system for the environmentally responsive lighting can also function independently of the sensors, so for example turned on or off for events.

The sustainable drainage strategy for the site is centered on facilitating the majority of the water to drain within the site and infiltrate down to the existing water table with the filtration gardens removing 80% of the total suspended solids in 90% of regular annual storms. The grading of the path and grass areas directs 65% of the hard surface stormwater runoff as well as 95% of the total stormwater runoff on site to the infiltration garden area, as compared to the previous existing condition where 100% of the site drainage was via catch basins and inlets.

Gerstacker Grove represents a thoughtful amalgam of flexibility, biodiversity, sustainability and innovative design, each remarkably interwoven in order to seamlessly become a responsive, resilient, ephemeral and lush open space for the University, one that has effectively strengthened the community, enhanced social connection and improved the wellbeing of those who call it home.

Project category: Schools and Playgrounds
Role of the entrant in the project: Prime / Landscape Architect
Other designers involved in the design of landscape: Additional consultants: Mannik Smith Group, Illuminart
Project location: University of Michigan, North Campus, 1230 Murfin, Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Design year: 2014
Year Built: 2016


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