Place + Community + Ecology: A Climate Adaptive Landscape Plan for UCLA


Severe drought in California triggered two statewide emergency water conservation regulations in 2022. Los Angeles’s water-demanding ornamental landscapes exacerbate the water crisis, biodiversity loss, and disconnection between Angelenos and native landscapes. As a forward-thinking institution, UCLA endeavors to create climate adaptive landscapes that address place, community and ecology. The UCLA Landscape Plan envisions an integrated landscape framework that is inspired by historic ecology and contemporary microclimates. Pioneering strategies established in the Los Angeles Biodiversity Index, the Plan sets up a model for biodiversity enhancement in the region.

UCLA’s prestigious campus, challenged by urgent climate threats, layers of historical influences, constrained physical footprint, is further at risk as student population continues to grow. UCLA must reimagine its iconic landscape to be environmentally resilient, equally accessible, visually unified, and fiscally viable. The Plan guides changes based on three transformative ideas: landscape zones, campus as ecosystem, design and programming, monitored through total asset management. Shaped by diverse voices, the Plan aims to foster landscape cultural change and guide the campus community in transitioning to a climate adaptive future.


Palimpsest of Layered Landscape

UCLA’s campus is nestled at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains in West Los Angeles, spanning 419 acres within the ancestral homeland of the Gabrieleno/Tongva people. The original campus architect developed UCLA’s Beaux Arts, campus master plan, the axial layout of which conflicted with the site’s complex topography and drainages. Throughout the mid-20th century, existing arroyos were modified and erased to make way for development. The campus came to be known for its park-like setting, grand views, and picturesque aesthetic. As UCLA grew, so did its surroundings, limiting the campus’s future expansion. The UCLA campus of today is a palimpsest of these layers of history. While it provides beloved outdoor spaces, its abundant ornamental landscapes are inappropriate for the climate. It lacks strong visual connections and requires significant amount of maintenance resources. With an increasing student population, the landscape also faces changing needs of campus communities.

In 2019, UCLA embarked on the development of a new Landscape Plan. The Plan contends that a landscape that represents the drought-tolerant native ecology can also be one that is a living laboratory, instrumental for learning, research, and teaching; that nurtures human health and wellness; and that is conducive to sociability and community. Furthermore, the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge creates opportunities for the empowerment of Indigenous People and traditional land stewardship practices.

Place + Community + Ecology

Acknowledging the campus as traditional, ancestral lands of Gabrieleno (Tongva) and their ancestors, UCLA established a framework to expand the collaboration between the tribal communities and UCLA. One guiding principle of this Plan is to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into campus landscape. The landscape architects collaborated with UCLA staff and tribal partners to identify spaces on campus for land stewardship and programming by indigenous people, integrate indigenous practices into campus maintenance practices, place interpretive signage near Tongva native plants that balances Indigenous cultural literacy with sensitivity to the privacy of the tribe’s cultural knowledge.

Viewing the campus as a living laboratory, the engagement process penetrated in all fronts. Contributors to the Plan include student groups, ecological, horticultural and watershed consultants; researchers and faculty; Indigenous communities; as well as campus communities at large. The landscape architects worked with various student groups on their Sustainability Action Research projects, such as edible landscape and biodiversity enhancement. GIS Story Map, Mural Boards, and Menti Interactive Presentation were used as online engagement tools to solicit feedback during COVID-19. As the campus opened up, the landscape architects facilitated more in-person activities including focus groups, design charettes and workshops. The engagement didn’t stop when the planning process concluded; it continues into implementation ensuring a cultural shift in people’s perception about landscape.

Before the nearly one hundred years of modification as a university campus, there were two terraces bisected by arroyos on site. These features supported four major distinctive planting communities: coastal sage scrub, chaparral, native grassland and riparian woodland. The formation of these historical plant communities were largely driven by physiographic conditions of the site, such as microclimate, soil, hydrology, and landform. Proposed landscape zones and future ecosystems stem from the analysis of historic ecology. A series of microclimate factors were derived as basis for proposed landscape zones and associated native plant palette.

A Climate Adaptive Campus

Facing severe drought, California’s State Water Board adopted two statewide emergency water conservation regulations in 2022. Los Angeles’s abundant and water-demanding ornamental landscapes that rely on potable water exacerbates the water crisis, biodiversity loss, and the disconnection between Angelenos and the native landscape. As a forward-thinking institution, UCLA endeavors to create climate adaptive landscapes and model responsible environmental practices to tackle sustainability challenges.

Being the densest campus among all University of California schools, 71% of UCLA’s campus is dominated by buildings and impervious surfaces. The remaining 29% of landscaped areas are largely occupied by turf and exotic species, which requires large amounts of irrigation water. The Plan sets up a 30-year vision with measurable outcomes to achieve climate adaptation, targeting 31.4 million gallons of irrigation water reduction per year and an overall 65% reduction in turf area. The strategic restoration and enhancement of habitats targets 30% of the total land designated for biodiversity enhancement.

Landscape Framework

The Plan’s proposed framework employs three transformative ideas: landscape zones, campus as ecosystem, and design and programming. The Plan demonstrates the framework through the design of selected key areas.

Landscape Zones

The Plan identifies four landscape zones on campus that can be managed as unique and interconnected urban ecosystems. The delineation of zones is based on shared ecological conditions, defined through the analysis of contemporary microclimates and historic ecology, including aspect, sun/shade, slope, soil, microwatershed, and topography. These analyses form the basis for each zone’s unique landscape character recommendations and native planting palettes. Furthermore, these landscape zones promote a unified landscape, reduction in maintenance costs, and connections with the land.

Environmental Systems: Campus as Ecosystem

The Plan uncovers the UCLA campus landscape’s great potential for biodiversity enhancement through a campus-wide network of high-quality habitat patches and corridors. The proposed network is composed of enhanced habitat nodes, underutilized turf spaces converted into more productive habitat and strategies for green stormwater management. The identification of sites for improvement and the scale of proposed changes relies heavily on input from the campus community.

Grounded in quantitative analysis, the team used landscape naturalness and landscape connectivity as key considerations to measure future improvements in biodiversity, estimating that the Plan’s recommendations could result in a 17% increase in biodiversity value. The Plan’s biodiversity targets build upon broader City-wide efforts, such as the LA Biodiversity Index and Ecotope frameworks, capitalizing on a coordinated, regional approach. Such efforts can increase connections between the campus community and nature, resulting in increased conservation behavior, improved mental and physical heath, and educational opportunities.

Design and Programming:

The UCLA Landscape Plan makes systematic design and programming recommendations through the development of a place type framework. The team categorized the campus into fourteen place types, each with their own programmatic purpose, spatial experience, and aesthetic qualities. The Plan also focuses on several campus-wide programmatic priorities related to social justice, health and wellness, and environmental performance. Variety of programmatic elements was considered to meet the current and future needs of the campus community, resulting in 111% increase in study spaces and significant expansion on the edible gardens and Tongva gardens.

The Plan’s final exercise is conceptual design and programming of selected key areas, which establish a basis of design for future implementation. Furthermore, these designs operationalize the Plan’s three-part framework, demonstrating how a coordinated, campus-wide approach comes into play in specific campus spaces.

Phasing and Total Asset Management

The new UCLA Landscape Plan operates at multiple scales and time horizons, providing short-term implementation measures and a long-term flexible framework. The Plan laid out next steps  which address multiple audiences, including administrators, staff, grounds maintenance, student groups, funders and donors, alumni, and consultants tasked with campus planning, design, funding, and implementation.

To have real-world value, a transformation needs an actionable schedule coordinated with available funding. The team introduced the concept of total asset management to evaluate the value of the current and future landscape and guide the University to manage campus improvements efficiently and effectively. An inventory of the component parts of the existing landscape, including useful life, unit cost, and the condition of each component, formed the basis of an accurate phasing plan.

By responding to voiced stakeholder needs and coordinating with existing biodiversity and climate initiatives in Los Angeles, the Plan ensures the University is poised to provide inclusive, high-performance open space for its community and the region. Beyond Los Angeles, UCLA’s landscape can be a global precedent for the climate-adapted campus of the 21st century.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):