Learning Gets a Fresh Perspective at the University of Denver’s Kennedy Mountain Campus

A long-range planning effort for the university will help meet programmatic needs in an outdoor setting, expanding the ways students can choose to learn and to lead.

Sit in nature for a few moments and you’ll notice how everything works together. Each individual plant and animal are part of a larger ecosystem, working to the benefit of the whole and the future of that ecosystem.

Now, sit in the middle of a college campus, and you’ll likely notice a similar pattern. While students are moving through their own individual journeys, they’re a formidable unit with a shared future as the next generation influencing the ecosystem that is human society.

It’s in this spirit that we took to designing the long-range plan for the University of Denver’s (DU) James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus (KMC) situated on 724 acres of pristine wilderness about a two-hour drive from DU’s city campus in Denver, Colorado.

We sought feedback from stakeholders, considered the needs of everyone who would interact with and within the environment, and kept an eye trained on how the campus could positively impact the future of the individual students — and the land itself.

University of Denver students at the Kennedy Mountain Campus enjoying nature’s classroom. (Photo courtesy of University of Denver.)

A Little Background

Once home to a Girl Scouts summer camp, the university purchased the KMC property in September 2021 with plans to create an experiential learning retreat. The university saw an opportunity to enrich its higher education curriculum by offering all the benefits that come with being steeped in nature: its healing effects and space to explore oneself and one’s relationships with others.

KMC will provide outdoor adventure, leadership, and life-changing opportunities centered on what DU calls the 4D Experience for students, with the goals of advancing intellectual growth, pursuing careers and lives of purpose, promoting well-being, and exploring character. As a place that will accommodate year-round use by students, faculty/staff, and alumni, the university plans to create a continuum of experience with the hope that facilitating positive relationships between people and the environment will create lasting memories and multigenerational experiences.

In addition to the student learning environment, the university intends to develop KMC as a private retreat, reunion, and team development facility — offering substantial benefits to the regional community and creating a source of revenue for the campus.

Having access to the outdoors can have enormous benefits to students. An article published in Health & Place in 2020 reviewed existing literature on nature in indoor and outdoor study environments in high school, college, and university settings. The authors found evidence of more campus green space associated with improved quality of life, better academic performance, and stress reduction.

The research pointed to three main pathways that may explain how nature benefits students. The first is harm reduction: trees and plants help reduce noise, air pollution, and heat exposure. Second, nature is restorative: such an environment can bring about beneficial psychological and physiological changes, which can help students recover from stress and mental fatigue. The final pathway is formed by nature’s building capacities: natural environments can encourage physical activity, social cohesion, and other healthy ways of living.

When schools like DU provide learning environments enmeshed in nature, as with the Kennedy Mountain Campus, they’re catering to the whole student. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; the stresses and challenges of daily life can filter in. Spaces that offer psychological benefits and create connections between people can provide a more fertile learning environment.

Guiding Principles of the Kennedy Mountain Campus Project

Our team took to developing the KMC long-range plan with the guiding principles outlined by our client, and which influence each aspect of the project. Those guiding principles included:

  • Create a Synthesizing Experience. KMC will offer an experience that contrasts with but is complimentary to what is offered at the urban Denver campus. Using outdoor programming, particularly in a co-curricular manner, KMC will promote a life-long mindset for wellness and help students explore character values, virtues, and behaviors.
  • Enhance Curriculum and Research. KMC will enable faculty and staff to explore how the outdoors can enhance their work, particularly curriculum innovations and research/scholarly activities. Class sessions, academic projects, environmental research, and retreats are a few of the possibilities KMC could support.
  • Engage Alumni. DU alumni and friends of the university will have opportunities to experience KMC through activities that include alumni reunions. These activities will be a source of revenue to ensure student programing is supported in perpetuity.
  • Be Self-Supporting. KMC will be financially supported with philanthropy, revenue-generating activities, and fee-based use.
  • Support Expansive Inclusivity. KMC will be expansively inclusive, meaning the offered experiences will work to create a sense of belonging by all from the DU community, regardless of ability, identity, or prior experience in nature.
  • Embody a Sustainable Conservation Ethic. KMC will have a strong conservation ethic and commitment to being an exceptional steward of the land with site development in support DU’s carbon neutrality goals. Restoration of waterways, maximizing renewable energy, and minimizing the impact of development, for example, will be informed by this ethic.
  • Practice Intentional Minimalism. With stewardship in mind, DU will maintain and develop the property with a minimalist but high-quality mindset. DU will overdevelopment and only consider new construction after careful consideration of the options with conservation and sustainability top of mind.

The Planning Process

With the guiding principles in place, our team’s task was to determine the ways in which the built and natural environments would help bring about the university’s goals. Because it is important to offer a holistic experience, not solely academics, we wanted to ensure the natural environment could be leveraged to enhance opportunities for personal reflection, challenge, and growth.

Beyond our team’s expertise in the design of educational facilities, this project capitalized on our work with clients such as Kampgrounds of America (KOA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. National Parks Service to design places where people learn about, enjoy, and are immersed in nature. The intersection of this experience, combined with our multidisciplinary service offerings, created the foundation for which we could weave in alignments with curriculum and deliver on strategies important to the university and its students.

As with any living organism, there are many moving parts to campus development. And while we sought to understand how the different user groups want to experience and benefit from such an environment, a big priority was to carefully weave in and address student needs and concerns. At the end of the day, the campus is intended to set them up for success and provide them with a strong foundation for the future. In seeking their feedback, we found two main themes: expansive inclusivity and environmental stewardship.

Designing for Expansive Inclusivity

DU plans to offer programming at KMC for every student — regardless of ability or prior experience in the outdoors. Thus, the campus must be expansively inclusive so all individuals can participate and have a sense of belonging.

What does that mean from a design perspective? To begin with, it’s no easy feat to make a remote setting accessible for all. But it was important to consider all bodies and abilities, and to ensure students who may be less familiar with or less at ease in nature would feel welcome at KMC. With that in mind, our top priorities were to:

  • Understand that a fulfilling experience looks different for everyone with options for all interests and comfort levels across the spectrum of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive diversity.
  • Embed scalability within the programming to support the university’s desire to offer a variety of activity types and the potential to continually build upon its offerings.
  • Make wayfinding/signage clear and accessible to all.
  • Ensure cabins and other buildings are accessible with facilities that support students with an array of gender identities.
  • Provide communication/messaging that KMC is not only for “outdoorsy” students, but for all students to experience learning and self-discovery in an alternative environment.
The long-range plan for DU’s Kennedy Mountain Campus includes design strategies to encompass interests and comfort levels across the spectrum of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive diversity, as well as different comfort levels of being in the outdoors. (Photos courtesy of University of Denver.)

To design for inclusion, our team identified equipment and other means to help get students on the trails while planning for different types of trails for various skills and abilities. We also rounded out activities so students who cannot access hikes — or who are uninterested — can participate in other types of challenges. Part of the equity component is offering a variety of activities — not every activity must be a physical challenge. Mental and other types of challenges can be just as fun and rewarding. We thought about how to provide for other activities that could still have an outdoor component such as stage performances in an amphitheater, reflection time in quiet spaces, a storytelling lab, and an astrology hub with a portable telescope.

Beyond physical ability differences, we considered cognitive differences, neurodiversity, and mental health, thus the plan incorporates spaces for campfire circles, indoor/outdoor yoga, hammocks, and informal or unstructured self-reflection time in nature.

To achieve the vision of KMC, each user group must have an intentional set of unique and signature experiences that can operate in conjunction with each other, within the parameters of the property development agreement, and within the seasonal windows of opportunity that the academic and community calendars afford. These experiences will be scaled over time as the property develops and improves, affording new and different activities for user groups. The mix of formal programs and informal use will be critical to meet the demand of all students while still generating the auxiliary revenue and philanthropy required to support KMC for the long term.

Designing for Sustainability

To best engage with nature, we must think regeneratively: If you respect the environment and give it the chance to flourish alongside the students, you’ll set everyone up for success for years to come.

DU’s guiding principles for KMC emphasize a strong conservation ethic and “relentless commitment to be exceptional stewards of the land” with any development to the campus aligning with the university’s ambitious carbon neutrality goals. Some of the conservation strategies include restoration of waterways, maximizing on-site renewable energy, and minimizing the impact of campus development.

The plan is to maintain and develop the property with a minimalist but high-quality touch. New construction will only be considered, if necessary, with a focus on conservation and sustainability. The university is seeking a rustic but comfortable experience for visitors — with the understanding that it will have a different feeling from DU’s city campus.

Some sustainability measures for the KMC campus are government-driven, but many are mission-driven. It’s something the university and its students care deeply about — plus those measures can be an asset to the university in helping lower project development and operating costs. Because the site was a Girl Scouts camp, there are plenty of existing buildings that will help reduce the need for as much new construction, with the caveat that we consider how to enhance, upgrade, and adapt those older facilities to suit current and future needs, as well as incorporate features and systems that enhance sustainability and efficiency.

To align with the guiding principles of the long-range plan that specify utilizing a sustainable conservation ethic and intentional minimalism, the project calls for effective utilization of existing structures on campus, which already offers a wide range of building types. Enhancing these already existing buildings and adding efficient systems and accessibility upgrades will help modernize the campus while keeping its rustic charm. (Photos courtesy of University of Denver.)

Some of the sustainability-related considerations for the site include:

  • Assessment of water rights and water-use mitigation infrastructure
  • Habitat restoration and protection
  • Re-use and decarbonization of existing buildings
  • Wildfire mitigation/evacuation plans and routes
  • Resiliency through on-site energy generation and storage
  • Education about the benefits of the natural environment

One of the most exciting features of a sustainable campus is weaving the work into the curriculum and research. For example, students will have the opportunity to learn about water rights, vulnerable fish species, and other forms of environmental stewardship. Even lessons about the on-site energy systems (solar panels, for instance) can be brought into the classroom. Plus, the campus will maintain substantial undeveloped acreage to ensure optimal engagement with the natural environment — for DU students and employees, as well as for visiting user groups.

Key Needs Addressed by the Long-Range Plan

The big needs identified for the future of the KMC fall under four categories:

  • Accommodations and infrastructure. At present, the number of overnight accommodations totals 215 beds in bunk houses. Thus, the plan is to create additional and different types of lodging for a variety of user groups. The long-range plan also addresses infrastructure requirements and water rights and management necessary for the development.
  • Physical and psychological safety. Physical safety is addressed through transportation, emergency planning, and the facilities, equipment, and training necessary to execute upon those plans. KMC is under strict policy to evacuate the entire site within 30 minutes of a wildfire event, thus this too is accounted for in the long-range plan. Other key priorities addressed include transportation to/from DU’s city campus, navigation within the site, and oversite of students. From a psychological perspective, it’s important for KMC be inclusive of all abilities and identities in terms of accommodations offered, activities provided, and the site design.
  • Connection. This relates to both the awareness of KMC on DU’s city campus as well as the ease of signing up for events and getting transportation to the site. In addition to providing a fulfilling student experience, the success of KMC depends on how best faculty and staff can leverage opportunities for curricular integration, research, retreats and/or events. The long-range plan also considers how the stories and experiences of KMC are captured and shared in promoting reflection on growth, purpose, character, and well-being.
  • Funding. While student use and experience are the primary focus of KMC, to become self-supporting, the long-range plan addresses the creation of revenue streams in its proposed improvements such as providing space and facilities for conferences, weddings, concerts, camping, full-camp rental, day-use activities, corporate retreats, and executive education programs.

Creating a Thriving Learning Ecosystem

DU believes that promoting a lifelong mindset for wellness and exploring character through the natural environment will have a lasting benefit for students as well as visitors to the campus. Through this planning process, it’s our shared goal to create a thoughtful space that is mindful of both the environment and student needs. KMC is an opportunity to think differently about university campus design and what constitutes an effective backdrop for learning.

With the planning process complete, we’re excited to see the next phases of the KMC progress!

Charlie Deese

Charlie serves as a director of design and co-director of our education market, helping to lead a team dedicated to imagining and delivering modern, functional, healthy, and inspiring learning environments for students, teachers, and all who have a role in educating the next generation. Additionally, he works to advance client relationships, business intelligence, and design excellence, which involves mentoring and empowering Cushing Terrell team members. In addition to education design, Charlie has in-depth experience in commercial and residential design and specializes in planning and large development projects. In recent years, his focus has been on master planning and education design projects where he leads stakeholder groups through a collaborative and inclusive visioning, programming, and design process to successfully identify and incorporate client and community goals into tailored solutions for each project.