When designing community-driven environments, it is important to establish a sense of belonging that demonstrates people’s diverse experiences with the space. Stakeholder engagement is an essential step in creating places that are tailored to the human experience. Through this collaborative process with end users, we can establish a unique program and design vision that ensures the final product is in line with actual needs.
Stakeholder engagement can be realized in a variety of ways, including focus groups, workshops, vision sessions, and individual interviews. It is paramount to incorporate different voices to gain a true understanding of how a space will be utilized. By engaging the primary user groups and discovering their experiences with the space, we can co-create a positive and enduring vision for the project.
An excellent example of stakeholder engagement can be seen in the “Reimagining Lyman” project for Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. When Grimshaw was called on to develop a program and vision for the Lyman Plant House and Conservatory in the College’s historic Botanic Garden, the first step was to identify the key stakeholders who had vested interest in reimagining the facility. Lyman is a unique place on campus that is frequented by a variety of users, including students, professors, volunteer groups, professional organizations, public visitors, and service and management groups.
By conducting a series of workshops and meetings with students, faculty, and visitors, the design team crafted a distinct vision that aligns with the real academic and programmatic requirements. As part of the comprehensive engagement program, the design team collaborated with the Smith College Botanic Garden Student Educators (BoGSEs), which culminated in a captivating two-day charette. To gain insights into student experiences at Lyman and the botanic garden, Grimshaw curated a collection of engaging materials, which included an inspirational wonderwall of images, postcards, and mapping tools to elicit anecdotal memories and personal encounters with the various spaces. With invaluable input from the BoGSEs and the wider community, this endeavor yielded an overlay of experiential and wellbeing opportunities, unveiling the need for a transformative and accessible “third space” – or an informal gathering place with adaptable programming – on the Smith College campus.
Reimagining Lyman presented the opportunity to create a malleable third space that will contribute to a positive campus culture in the following ways:
Unlike academic buildings, dormitories, or student unions, which often feel formal and structured to a specific use, Lyman transcends disciplinary boundaries and can offer a peaceful and welcoming environment that encourages relaxation regardless of college department or role. It is a place where students, faculty, staff and visitors can come together on equal footing, fostering a sense of belonging and connection among all members of the campus community. Through the student engagement process, we heard a number of people say that “it’s time to change the narrative of botanic gardens.”
A third space can foster a sense of community by providing a place for people to come together, collaborate, and build meaningful connections, promoting a sense of belonging and camaraderie. The Lyman Plant House can act as a gathering spot for meeting in a more casual setting, offering a unique backdrop for informal study groups, collaborative projects, or simply meeting with friends and colleagues. It can also provide a shared interest among students outside of academics by creating a common ground where students with varying backgrounds can gather, exchange ideas, and engage. One stakeholder noted, “My favorite memory at Lyman is singing acapella in the Temperate House during the Valentine’s Day event.”
Lyman is a natural retreat that contributes to the overall well-being of students and faculty by providing a space for relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection. It can offer a break from academic pressures and provide opportunities for engaging in self-care and mindfulness. This was a recurring sentiment throughout our stakeholder engagement:
“Lyman is a safe haven, it’s a place that makes me feel emotionally safe…”
“I felt ‘seen’ for the first time at Lyman”
“Lyman is a place of restoration”
“I would love yoga / meditation workshops or spaces, so we could connect to our bodies with plants”
A third space can stimulate creativity and innovation by providing an environment that encourages getting messy, brainstorming, idea generation, and collaborative problem-solving. It can serve as a hub for creative thinking and innovation among students and faculty, fostering a culture of entrepreneurship. One student noted, “I like the messy environment…[it] makes me feel like I have the freedom to make mistakes and fosters a sense of creativity.”
A space such as the Lyman can provide opportunities for personal growth and development, serving as a platform to engage in leadership activities, clubs, and organizations that promote holistic student development and growth. Several stakeholders suggested ways to activate the garden for personal progress, including providing a platform for stories about climate change, a space for BIPOC learning, and an avenue for campus stewardship programs.
In seeing the campus through the eyes of the students, we gained personal insight into what the Lyman represents on an individual level. Stakeholder engagement was the fundamental piece to determining the need for an accessible third space on the Smith College campus. By listening to students and faculty and integrating their ideas, we were able to develop a master plan to reimagine Lyman as a place that fully supports the diverse community that it serves.