History + Context: A Landscape Framework for Present and Future Life at The University of Colorado, Boulder


Boulder, Colorado is a city rich in context. The Flatirons cascade down from the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern Plains creating a dramatic setting for this uniquely nature-oriented college town. For over a century, The University of Colorado, Boulder, has sat at the heart of the city and defined its character almost as much as the city’s iconic landscape. So how does a master plan respect this powerful context and rich history? The 2021 Master Plan for CU Boulder sets forth an ambitious framework for the next 30 years of growth that leverages this rich context while honoring the spatial history of the campus. This planning effort pivots away from a car-dominated urban system and towards a pedestrian-first network that recalls historic patterns of buildings and open spaces. The resultant framework proposes an enhanced network of open spaces that weaves together resiliency strategies and restorative landscapes with student life programming to connect CU Boulder to its natural and urban context.


You cannot think of Boulder, Colorado without thinking of the University of Colorado campus. Its prominence within the city fabric is reinforced by established urban neighborhoods framing the campus that open up onto views of CU Boulder’s iconic Tuscan roofscape. The campus itself has a long history of planning that led to a pattern and character that is both distinguished and context sensitive. Original plans from Charles Klauder and Sasaki Associates, dating back to 1918 and 1960, can be easily traced to the modern form of the campus. Beautiful natural systems, such as Boulder Creek, weave through a rigorously organized series of buildings and spaces with transcendent views of the adjacent Flatiron Mountains. Understanding this history, the design team engaged in an ambitious vision plan to guide the development of the campus for the next 30-years that respects legacy, celebrates the awe-inspiring context, and grounds the public realm with 21st Century learning, living, and research. The plan identified both near-term tactical improvements in connectivity and program as well as long-term development plans anchored by new and existing landscapes.

Landscape Driven Principles

To guide the planning process the team worked closely with engaged campus staff, a strong design review committee, and graduate and undergraduate students. Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, feedback collected from various stakeholders was a critical influence throughout the development of the master planning efforts. Out of these conversations and a meticulous analysis that weighed campus opportunities, future projections of research and housing needs, the ecological context, and environmental risks, the design team set forth eight guiding principles to structure the subsequent plan.

The first principle is to 1) Engage Surrounding Communities as they drive decisions regarding multi-modal transit corridors which connect CU Boulder to off-campus areas. The second principle is 2) Diversify Campus Neighborhoods to ensure that each academic and residential cluster dovetails with interesting and varied outdoor programming. The third principle, 3) Respect and Reinforce Natural Systems positions Boulder Creek and the floodplains as an asset, and not a constraint, for future development. The fourth principle, 4) Create Strong Public Connections prioritizes multimodal transit between each campus and the surrounding neighborhoods. The fifth principal, 5) Integrating Diverse Outdoor Spaces centers new campus landscapes as the social and organizational structure for proposed development clusters. The sixth principle, 6) Respect Campus Character and Structure, thoughtfully echoes the historic spatial relationships of the campus in new development patterns. The seventh principle, 7) Create a Network of Student Life Spaces centers dining halls, gathering spaces, and athletic & recreation facilities as a program anchor to activate open spaces. The last principle 8) Enhance Campus Access and Wayfinding, creates new campus thresholds at important pedestrian entrances. These gateways reinforce the edges between campus and town to create a sense of arrival and support intuitive wayfinding.

Innovation in Analysis

Throughout the development of the plan, the design team utilized a number of innovative approaches to understand the site and context. Views to the campus from the surrounding city and views from the campus to the mountains are incredibly important experiences for CU Boulder and the city. To ensure these view corridors were understood at a granular level, Sasaki developed a quantitative view calculator that enabled the design team to understand the view from any given point within and around the site. This view calculator spatialized experiential information to inform the placement and forms of new buildings and open spaces. The team also utilized data sets from both internal university sources and social media to gain insight into how patterns of social activity unfold across campus. These analyses were created in collaboration with college faculty to better understand off campus housing trends and where students socialize. These hidden student life networks highlighted strategic interventions needed on campus to improve students’ experience and safety.

The team also conducted a detailed landscape resource survey of the campus to understand existing natural resources, current landscape typologies, and maintenance practices. This included an analysis of the existing tree canopy and species on a district by district level. This analysis guided the development of strategies to ensure future landscape interventions plan for diversity and proactively plant near trees with a high-mortality risk. Lastly, an interactive user mapping tool gathered feedback from students and staff to illuminate how people move through the campus and where critical conflicts exist. These ‘digital cow paths’ uncovered ways the campus is utilized that were previously invisible before the community’s input was synthesized through this tool. These analyses were all critical inputs in the shaping of a new public space hierarchy that responds directly to the needs of users.

Main Campus – The Historic Heart

The proposed interventions at Main Campus encompass a range of scales, from subtle retrofits of historic landscapes to a grand reworking of the pedestrian and bike system. The proposed hierarchy of pedestrian and bike circulation centers universally accessible design. Plans for new quads, courts, and other formal open spaces are used to structure new development clusters on the periphery of campus and connect important campus nodes to new destinations. Stitching together the historic core of campus with the proposed development is a new concept for “The Walk”–a transit, pedestrian, and bike mall that transforms a vehicular drive into a new spine of student activity.

North of Boulder Creek, previously disconnected from the main campus, is reimagined as a residential neighborhood that embraces its location along the creek and frames a new, flexible public plaza and central landscape terraced to manage flood waters. A new pedestrian and bike bridge crosses the creek, creating opportunities for elevated overlooks that stretch over floodable riparian landscapes.

Williams Village – A Residential Cluster

The plans for Williams Village breathe new life into the 1970’s-era “towers-in-the-park” context. New recreation fields, flexible plazas, and a proposed riparian park form an open-space network that attracts student life. Several acres of existing surface parking lots are converted to new recreational fields that provide a green buffer between neighboring residential areas and the campus dorms. Additionally, residential development was strategically positioned to preserve mature trees around the four existing towers. The existing tower and proposed development are tied together by a series of public spaces activated by a new maker space on the first floors.

East Campus – The New Frontier

East Campus today is made up of large format buildings, surface parking lots, and low-density graduate housing separated from campus life and amenities. The plans for East Campus call for the creation of an extensive new landscape network that fully embraces Boulder Creek and its floodplains. The existing and enhanced riparian networks shape a novel development pattern that mixes historic spatial forms with newly restored ecological corridors. Large quads frame views of the mountains while a transit and pedestrian network links together the development nodes. This spatial pattern provides a unique setting for new research facilities and residential housing that maintains strong connections to the outdoors in programmed landscapes, new student life amenities, and landscapes of ecological restoration and passive recreation.

A Path to Implementation

Historically, the campus struggled to make meaningful landscape improvements due to lack of dedicated funding sources for one-off projects. To rectify this, the planning team placed public space improvements front-and-center of the proposed development projects through an interactive implementation tool developed to assist the institution with capital project decision-making over the next several decades. Public space and landscape upgrades were tied to specific development scenarios, so that as funding came in for new building projects, a portion of that funding would support landscape infrastructure. Additionally, the masterplan emphasized connections to landscape spaces with performative infrastructure needs, with a particular focus on stormwater management, to center the importance of landscape in the funding of future capital projects. These efforts result in a bold yet contextually and ecologically sensitive action plan that will guide Campus growth for the next 30 years.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):