Miller Worley Center kicks off Campus Waterways Visioning series

The Miller Worley Center for the Environment and Facilities Management are hosting the Campus Waterways Visioning series throughout October, which will culminate in a new design for the campus waterways.

This story originally appeared in the Mount Holyoke News.

The Connecticut River Watershed flows from the New Hampshire-Canada border all the way to where it meets the ocean on the Connecticut coast. Towards its southern border lies Stony Brook, one of the river’s distributaries that flows through the Mount Holyoke College campus. The entirety of the Stony Brook Watershed has only four impoundments, or dams — three of which are located here on campus. The sound of rushing water under spider bridge, grassy slopes leading to trees and flowering bushes along the edge of lower lake, the docks reaching out into upper lake; these are all quintessential parts of the Mount Holyoke campus that are possible because of the dams that transform Stony Brook into its current two-lake form. To reimagine Stony Brook’s role at the college, the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and Facilities Management are hosting the Campus Waterways Visioning series throughout October, which will culminate in a new design for the campus waterway.

Jenica Allen and Olivia Aguilar of the Miller Worley Center hosted virtual kickoff events for the series on Sept. 27 and 28, with students, faculty and staff in attendance. On Oct. 1, the Miller Worley Center and Facilities Management held a community visioning event in the Blanchard Hall Great Room. Upon entering the room, participants were handed two sets of stickers: a green set, to adhere to images they liked, and a red set, to show what they did not. The room was lined with easels that displayed various images of landscapes, rivers, lakes, outdoor classrooms and more. Passersby were asked to choose among the sets of pictures which they would like to see emulated on campus in the case that the lakes were transformed into a riverine system or if an outdoor classroom were installed. Colored dots adorned the images sporadically. Some pictures hosted clusters of red or green stickers, indicating participants’ strong attitudes towards certain building materials, landscape maintenance techniques and waterfront access designs.

The Miller Worley Center is not alone in their efforts to assess the community’s waterway preferences. A landscaping and architecture consulting firm, PLACE Alliance, was hired by the College to help with the waterway restoration. The company will be working with the College through the visioning process, starting with evaluating community preferences and ending with anywhere from a handful to a few dozen potential courses of action for Stony Brook. In an interview with Mount Holyoke News, Andy Bohne, Associate Principal at PLACE Alliance, explained why this initial visioning process is a key part of landscape design.

“The more input we get from the community, the better the project will be for future generations,” Bohne said. He believes that campuses are meant to work best for those who use them every day, and emphasized the importance of making the design process as inclusive as possible. He is particularly excited by the unique opportunities that students in the art, technology and music sectors can bring to the project, with everything from live biological monitoring to interactive art sculptures on the table.

Mount Holyoke has long been pouring resources into maintaining the lake system in its current state. Both Upper and Lower Lake are man-made. According to the Mount Holyoke Historic Atlas, they were initially created in the early 1800s to give nearby mill operators a consistent water flow to generate power. The Historic Atlas further reported that in 1985, Upper Lake had to be entirely drained and its bottom layer of sediment and vegetation removed, a process called dredging. The next year, Lower Lake went through a similar but less invasive process called hydro-raking. The excess buildup of sediment occurred as the lakes “were trying to return to their natural state as a small stream surrounded by wetlands,” the article stated. Not only was this process extremely costly, it also was damaging to the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.

Other challenges to the campus waterways include pollution from the surrounding area.

“There are a lot of storm water inputs that aren’t controlled,” Bohne said. When asked about the possibility of removing the dams and restoring the waterway to its original riverine state, he expressed that the initial costs of this landscape transformation would result in a self-sustaining ecosystem that would not require as much ongoing investment. Overall, the re-designing process offers an opportunity to create a campus waterway system that is more ecologically sustainable, more financially sound and fits the needs of the community in the 21st century.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges to PLACE Alliance’s outreach efforts. Bohne commented that the waterways visioning process was intended to begin in spring 2019, but was quickly undermined by the sudden switch to remote work.

“For this type of outreach work, you really need to get out in front of people and talk to them,” Bohne said. The visioning event in Blanchard reflected this, with another member of PLACE Alliance positioned in the hall by the front door of the Dining Commons, talking to students as they entered for lunch and encouraging them to stop by the Great Room to do the visual survey. Despite the delays and barriers, Bohne expressed optimism about how the process has gone so far, saying that the level of “engagement from the people who have shown interest is awesome.”

A third event on Oct. 6 involved focus groups convening to tour the campus and discuss possible plans for the landscape. For those who missed the first events of the visioning process, there are still many opportunities to participate. A Waterways Planning Town Hall will be held on Oct. 28 in the Morrison/Andreola Room of the Willits-Hallowell Conference Center from 3-5 pm, where members of the community will have the opportunity to hear the proposed designs for the campus waterways and provide feedback. Bohne also emphasized that PLACE Alliance and the Miller Worley Center are open to new ideas and feedback at any time from any community members interested in the project.