Sketch by Nikos Salingaros

Welcoming open spaces: Campus design, part 1

Author's note: I will present innovative techniques for designing a campus, in a series of ten essays. The most human campuses (corporate, or university) combine adaptive geometric typologies acting in partnership. This is the secret to creating great urban spaces that invite use, above and beyond any formal design. The method helps us to understand the success or failure of urban clusters in promoting pedestrian life. Reference will be made to eight city types as described in the book-length paper “Eight city types and their interactions”. These are labeled: Nourishing-physical, Fractal, Network, Spontaneous self-built, Virtual, Developer, Anti-network, and Inhuman. Every city, and each region of a city, is some mixture of these eight city types. Mixing distinct city types in various proportions makes possible an infinite variety of urban settings with widely different human characteristics.


In January of 2017, the Vice-president for Building, Development, and Sustainability Strategies of the University of Reims, France invited me to consider designing their new campus. The project would re-design and transform existing buildings, “re-think” the usual approach, and make a master plan for future growth. I had been to the city for a conference, but not to the site of the new campus. I proposed a core team of three New Urbanists who also have knowledge of Alexandrian design methods: our team would invite other New Urbanist friends based in Europe to join us, as needed.

I had a Skype interview with the University President, who is a computer scientist. I presented our approach as an entirely innovative design methodology that parallels Design Patterns in software. He was intrigued and surprised by this connection, as New Urbanism meant nothing to him. So the Alexandrian angle seemed to work better to convince the authorities in this particular case. I prepared some material on the theoretical design foundations and sent it to the President. I outlined four points on how we would like to move forward as a consultancy on the project:

1. We write a set of guidelines for future builders of new campus buildings.

2. Our team diagnoses the existing campuses (3 of them in Rheims) and recommends the most pressing interventions.

3. Our team works with the University to repair the existing public spaces and to propose the siting and design of new buildings.

4. At a later date, we would participate in the competitions of which architect gets to build the new buildings.

Everyone involved (my contacts in Reims plus my team partners) wanted to pre-empt the entire process being given to conventional industrial campus design. Unfortunately, this project never got off the ground, and none of us made a preliminary site visit. But the material explaining the union of New Urbanist and Alexandrian design techniques for a new campus is relevant in general. This is a radical approach to urbanism, and presenting the “open-source” design tools gives others a chance to do something really innovative. I hope these will inspire colleagues to push for the design and re-design of both corporate and university campuses.

Welcoming open spaces

It is possible today to build learning institutions that offer a marvelous, life-enhancing environment for students, faculty, and staff?

The experience and imageability of any particular campus depend upon its spaces and perceivable organized detail. Those qualities are what the visitor remembers, and what the students, faculty, and staff experience every day. This result is not accidental or haphazard, but can be achieved by deliberately applying mathematical design guidelines. Those combine visually-oriented design with functionality. I list some of the most common mistakes below, so that knowing to avoid them will lead to a much improved campus design.

Many campuses built in the past several decades contain dysfunctional urban spaces. Those spaces do not invite, and in many cases actually prevent pedestrian use expected of an open plaza. The problems can be divided into two categories: (1) impediments to crossing the space, and (2) problems inherent in the surrounding structures.

Physical obstacles to traversing open space include continuous low walls for sitting that cut diagonal paths (but those low walls could be very effective when situated radially/transversely); badly-placed pools of water that do the same thing; misusing green in lawn that is out-of-bounds for people and which prevents direct paths; changes of ground level that cannot be easily negotiated; steps that prompt a pause and mental concentration in the user, which could have been eliminated; unnecessarily steep sloping ground, etc. All of these built features betray a lack of understanding of what mechanisms make an urban space function as such (Salingaros & Pagliardini, 2016).

Paths become robust when reinforced by an adjoining edge (see “Theory of the Urban Web” in (Salingaros, 2005)). Elements such as benches, low walls, lawn boundaries, and stairs need to run next to and parallel to potential paths, not across them. A sufficiently wide staircase encourages flow along its bottom step much more than transverse movement up-and-down the stairs.

The second set of problems concerns the buildings surrounding the open space. The ideal qualities here include compositionally rich and visually welcoming façades, such as found in highly-ordered information, fractal scaling, and multiple symmetry content of traditional buildings. One feels the desire to cross a plaza or open space when attracted by a visible, emotionally-welcoming goal on the other side (whereas minimalist concrete, bonded brick without patterns or features, and glass curtain-walls — none of which attract us emotionally — trigger the opposite effect). Another welcoming quality of the boundary is to be found in porticoes on one or more sides of the plaza (Salingaros & Pagliardini, 2016). Such a protected space encourages pedestrian activity all around the boundary of the open space. Discontinuous arcades may look nice but, are, as a consequence, never used.

Acknowledgment: Expanded from a keynote speech “Eight city types and their interactions”, 11th International Congress on Virtual Cities and Territories, Krakow, Poland, 6–8 July 2016. Published in: Technical Transactions – Architecture, 2017 Volume 2, Politechnica Krakowska (Krakow Technical University), Krakow, Poland, pages 57-70.


Nikos Salingaros (2005, 2014) Principles of Urban Structure, Sustasis Press, Portland, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Vajra Books, Kathmandu.

Nikos Salingaros & Pietro Pagliardini (2016) “Geometry and life of urban space”, in: Back to the Sense of the City, 11th Virtual City & Territory International Monograph Book, Centre of Land Policy and Valuations (Centre de Política de Sòl i Valoracions), Barcelona, Spain, pages 13-31.

Links to the 10-part Salingaros campus design series:

  1. Welcoming open spaces
  2. Alexander’s Oregon patterns
  3. Avoiding planned isolation
  4. ‘Walkabout’ design with human sensors
  5. Budgeting for a fractal city
  6. The university campus as a microcosm of tradition
  7. Why we hug the edge of open spaces
  8. Space is experienced positively only when it is coherent
  9. How life is influenced by physical boundaries
  10. Car-pedestrian interactions and the parking ribbon
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.