Outdoor Adventure Programs Gain Traction on College Campuses

The surge in environmental awareness at colleges and universities nationwide corresponds with increased interest in outdoor adventures programs. On the whole, though, outdoor programs exist in found space on most campuses, and not much of it — 3,000 square feet tucked into the lower level of the recreation center, perhaps, with lack of visibility and storage being ongoing issues. A few institutions have gotten creative — but these are generally facilities that don’t keep students in the building after the forms are signed and the equipment is issued.

How the University of Nebraska-Lincoln became the home of an apparent national first — the Outdoor Adventures Center (OAC), a standalone facility dedicated to the school’s outdoor program that includes activity space as part of its 13,532 square feet — was partly due to the school’s longstanding devotion to outdoor activities, and partly a consequence of a three-part student-fee referendum that made the program the odd man out in a renovation of the school’s 1989 recreation center. But its existence, and the measurable impact it made on Nebraska in just its first year, suggests that dedicated outdoor adventures centers could be in a few schools’ futures in the years ahead.

Standing Tall  –  One particular feature makes the OAC stand out on the Nebraska campus in a big way — a climbing wall on the building’s exterior that rises to a height of 41 feet. A permanent belay bar on the roofline can accommodate three belay lines that for a fee can be used during special events such as home football weekends. Designed to resemble the upper third of the Chimney Rock National Historic Site (a western Nebraska landmark that greeted pioneers on their way west along the Oregon Trail), the exterior wall is controlled by the removal of handholds and footholds between 10 and 20 feet off the ground, keeping the lower portion available for bouldering at all times. The wall is a destination spot, a “happening,” but it also telegraphs the building’s purpose, drawing attention to the rest of the outdoors program.

And there’s more inside. The climbing and bouldering center features a bouldering wall and four climbing walls ranging from 38 to 43 feet in vertical climbing height interspersed with floor-to-ceiling windows, which brings a canyon feel to the space that is nonetheless light and airy. The climbing center comprises 3,200 square feet of floor space, and the walls have been fabricated primarily for skill development and training for competitions. The recreation department insisted on the inclusion of four cracks to enable the teaching of crack climbing in a controlled setting.

The OAC also houses the campus bike shop (reached from the outside through double sliding glass doors on the west entrance) and a dividable classroom that doubles as a conference room/meeting space for the staff, which enjoys direct egress to an exterior patio area to the south of the facility where tent set-up, camp stove training or other outdoor adventures learning experiences can take place. A storage/workroom includes a food service area where, to cite one example, 1,050 meals were prepared for students taking backpacking, canyoneering, surfing and canoeing trips over spring break in 2015. The classroom, as well as day-use lockers and three locker rooms, can be accessed without the entire building being open for operation. In fact, all primary indoor spaces can be operated independently.

The building’s layout — professional staff offices are located centrally, with storefront glass walls making it possible for the staff to observe all daily operations — allows for easy access to each activity area independently and the free movement between all areas. These details lend the building something close to the experience of a full-fledged recreation center, if at a smaller scale. With its profile designed to resemble the peaks and undulations of a mountain, and lit to glow from within like a beacon, the climbing center portion is a showcase for activity and a potent symbol of the institution’s commitment to the outdoor program. And it’s more than just a space to rent and pick up gear — it’s a facility where learning takes place in addition to recreation.

The OAC is an embodiment of a coming change in recreation as Millennials and teens embrace adventure sports and environmental causes. The logic that once placed climbing walls at the front or center of new recreation centers — as much as an architectural element as an activity space — appears to be giving way to something more holistic, with indoor climbing walls tied to the outdoor activities that originally gave birth to them. And there are, perhaps, other activities that fit better under this umbrella. For example, the rise of bicycle culture on campuses and in cities practically cries out for an expansion of the infrastructure devoted to bicycles — maintaining them, parking them, storing them indoors — and to the campus fabric that accommodates them. The OAC is a step in this direction, with a generous space devoted to bike maintenance, 22 bicycle lockers available for rent (to members of the university community using the OAC and other nearby buildings), and a location along one link in the Lincoln community’s extensive trail system.

Additional facilities like the OAC will pop up as more people join these efforts, but also, just because the OAC exists. The college recreation center building boom happened because students demanded them and because the new centers became important recruiting tools. For now, UNL enjoys a huge edge among adventurous, active and environmentally conscious prospective students, but it’s unlikely to last long.

© 2016  College Planning & Management, republished with permission. The original article “Great Heights” appeared in November 2016 issue

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