Weaving the campus’ visual tapestry: Judy Chan

Whether it’s a canopy of shade from relocated trees or a riot of color erupting from mounds of dirt come spring, the fruits of Judy Chan’s handiwork can assault the senses and etch indelible images in the minds of Stanford community members and visitors.

Judy Chan is associate director of the planning office. (Image credit: Courtesy Judy Chan)

In her role as associate director of the planning office, Chan covers a lot of ground. The scope of her reach is evident throughout the far-flung expanses of Stanford’s sylvan territories.

“She truly believes that those who occupy an environment must participate in shaping it – that’s very important to her,” says David J. Neuman, university architect and associate vice provost for planning. Chan reports to Neuman, who has taken note of her “commitment to collaboration” and her “involvement of all affected in the planning process.”

When barriers or other protective devices are placed around an oak tree to prevent vehicles from parking beneath it, you can bet an edict from Chan had something to do with it. Without such measures, the weight from automobiles compacts the soil and cuts off the below-ground air supply vital to a tree’s survival.

Such a level of awareness is routine for the leader of the administrative organization for the central campus that handles above-ground infrastructure and provides an integrated approach to planning and design.

The planning office is composed of a campus planning and design team, headed by Chan, that deals with collaborating on capital development plans and the building of science, research, teaching, library and housing facilities; outdoor spaces; entryways; outdoor art; and roadways. Chan also manages the office budget for administrative functions, and produces documents and plans for presentations to the Board of Trustees and other groups. Moreover, she takes responsibility for the up to $4 million in annual funds for campus infrastructure development. Another planning team, headed by Charles Carter, handles long-range land-use concerns.

Chan’s group ensures that the various regions of the university connect with the rest of the campus. “That connection is one of the key principles of our campus planning work that we live and breathe at every level,” Chan says.

Her staff of six is made up of H. Ruth Todd, assistant university architect; Cathrine Deino Blake, senior landscape architect/campus planner; Marlene C. Bumbera, architectural associate; Scott J. Bottari and Debbie Canino, assistant campus planners; and Marcos Díaz González, planning assistant.

Blake, who has worked with Chan for three years, praises her manager’s technical knowledge and her people skills. “Her style is more to coach you through things rather than tell you what to do,” Blake says.

Neuman regards Chan’s dedication to “listening, interpreting and communicating” to a variety of interest groups as “her hallmark.”

Credit a Chan-inspired idea when the wildflowers make their annual debut along the university’s well-traversed roadways and lonesome fields. Now coordinated by three entities – the Planning Office, Facilities Operations and gift donor Helen Bing – the wildflowers project sprouted a few years ago when Chan threw out some seeds behind the Serra complex. “It sort of went from there,” says Bumbera. “Judy actually started that.”

Another enduring legacy of Chan’s tenure is the $3.5 million Palm Drive reconstruction project, an endeavor that resulted in a cosmetic and comprehensive overhaul of the university’s picture-postcard entrance.

In “before” photographs, the mile-long promenade is hemmed in by deep potholes brimming with standing water. In the “after” shot, the palm-bordered arterial, which carries about 23,000 vehicles per day, shows clearly defined bicycle lanes and runoff drains where swamplike shoulders existed previously.

The undertaking involved, among other measures, decreasing the number of vehicle lanes from four to three, then two, and routing water to seasonal ponds in the adjoining arboretum.

Completed three weeks ahead of schedule and $100,000 under budget, the project, which entailed individual evaluation and treatment of its 152 palm trees by a specialist, was awarded the 1995 American Society of Landscape Architects Award.

The visual impact of the campus environs is an outcome often influenced by standards set by Chan’s office. For example, the ubiquitous presence of black metal outdoor furniture is no coincidence. Chan’s staff determined that brown-colored furniture oxidized more. Her team always must consider the potential for problems. For example, will pathways and jogging trail improvements alongside student residential areas have a disruptive impact on the habitat of Stanford’s endangered tiger salamander?

Then there’s the never-ending chore of improving signs: their placement on buildings, on the grounds, and making sure their lettering communicates vital information.

This eye for aesthetics and for the pragmatic was developing prior to Chan’s 1981 arrival at Stanford. By then, tree-hugging Chan, who has a bachelor of arts degree in environmental design/landscape architecture from the University of California-Berkeley, had served as executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that plants trees in the community; co-founded the Friends of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area; and worked as a landscape architect in the Caribbean and with the State of California.

Despite her ability to oversee various aspects of projects, attending to details isn’t one of her primary skills, Chan says, noting she’s more a concept person and other members of her staff can better attend to the minutiae. “You build on people’s strengths,” says Chan, who scores as an “Idealist” on the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI), a test that identifies 16 personality types and that she is certified to administer.

At 46, Chan says that she spent the first 25 years of her career healing the environment and wants to devote the next quarter-century to “help people along the way” by applying knowledge acquired through MBTI testing to her daily dealings with people. Chan says her personality indicator training work helps her provide the tools and the framework for others to discover their strengths and weaknesses.

A solid foundation of “team building” is “essential in creating a good product,” she says.

The primary residence for Chan and her husband, John Amber, a former product designer who is now a house dad, and their two young daughters is a 44-foot sailboat. Mister Ed, docked off Oyster Point Boulevard in South San Francisco, is the base from which the family fans out to enjoy activities in San Francisco and other Bay Area locales.

The lifestyle switch of giving up the material trappings of a traditional household enables them to establish “home” anywhere they go and appreciate a richer dimension of their surroundings.

This re-shifting of priorities started taking form after Chan and Amber spent 1991 following the ocean currents off Baja California and western Mexico on their sailboat. Their original plan was to make ports of call in Costa Rica, Hawaii and Seattle, among other stops. “We never made it,” recalls Chan, in her working world an enforcer of deadlines and keeper of timetables.

She is reminded daily of the motto from that journey – “live your dream” – by a promotional button she displays on her office wall. “We talked about simplifying our lives, putting energy into a lifestyle that fulfilled us,” she says.

During lunch in her office, Chan sets out festive plates decorated by her children, and notes that a maternal great-grandfather was a merchant given to frequent sea crossings on business journeys to the Far East. Chan, a third-generation Chinese American born in San Mateo and reared in Menlo Park, will be among a contingent of 16 family members who will visit their ancestral village next summer.

She “loves” an unverified family story of a grandfather bartering for a Chinese bride “worth two cows.” Later he would leave his homeland to settle in the United States. “He decided he wanted to be part of building America,” she says.

And now Chan carries on the tradition by being a force in building the environment that keeps Stanford “looking like Stanford – thoughtful, secure, stable and a safe home to all.”