Spotlight On Design and Community
An institutionally centered approach to campus planning and design is becoming increasingly phased out as higher education evolves toward a more student-centered pedagogy. Shifting the focus of campus planning and design to the student not only improves academic outcomes for individual students but also creates a sense of community and human connection
University and college campuses have traditionally reflected the departmental separation and discipline-specific model of academic scholarship. This institutionally centered approach to campus planning and design is becoming increasingly phased out as higher education evolves toward a more student-centered pedagogy. Shifting the focus of campus planning and design to the student not only improves academic outcomes for individual students but also creates a sense of community and human connection. Stephen Coulston, AIA, principal in the Austin, TX, office of Perkins+Will, spoke with College Planning & Management to explain why community connections are so important and how the design and planning of campus can facilitate community-building.
Q. Why is it important for university and college to foster better community connections?
The line separating society and academia is increasingly blurred. As consumers, current and future students expect both city and university to be as accessible and searchable as Google, provide rapid delivery on expectations like Amazon, and offer the service ambiance of Starbucks. University-community engagement must respond to our societal issues of the day.
As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak pointed out in The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, most collegiate institutions have some version of their mission and purpose grounded in learning, service, and research, yet find themselves struggling with issues ranging from operational funding to college debt. Meanwhile, cities are taking up the gauntlet and looking to partner in new ways to problem-solve and better their decision-making policies. Together, universities and their communities are uniquely poised to tackle the most serious issues of the day: equity, opportunity, sustainability, resiliency, etc.—each of which can have related implications on the built environment.
Q. How can the design and planning of a university campus facilitate community-building?
In the 2011 CityLab article, “Why Cities Matter,” Richard Florida states that nearly 85 percent of Americans live in metro areas, which produce 90 percent of the U.S.'s total economic output and 85 percent of its jobs. And in a 2016 CityLab article, “The Reality of America’s College Towns,” he notes that more than 50 percent of colleges and universities are in urban areas and 90 percent of students attend institutions in cities. This means that cities are home to both the largest student pools of tomorrow and alumni whose power of jobs creation, tax base, and philanthropy have a reciprocal university upside.
By reimagining how they invest their resources and take a more community-minded approach, universities can have a big local impact. One example is the University of Florida (UF) Innovation Square’s Infinity Hall, an entrepreneurial living-learning community and the first residential public-private partnership of its kind for the institution. In addition to providing residential quarters, it has over 20,000 square feet of innovation and collaboration spaces for UF’s entrepreneurial students and university program partners. This building is part of a larger urban redevelopment project that transforms 12 underutilized blocks in Gainesville, FL, into a walkable urban research district that capitalizes on the entrepreneurial energy of UF. This successful project is the result of an intense collaboration between the university, Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, Shands Healthcare, the City of Gainesville, and private development groups.
Q. In what ways has traditional campus design and planning inadvertently discouraged community-building?
Campuses tend to be insular in nature, and small decisions add up. New security fences or even historic stone walls can serve as barriers that communicate an unwelcoming message to the surrounding community. Public buildings such as fine arts centers, performance halls, and events centers located within the impermeable campus core discourage community access. Communities can also create barriers to campus accessibility. A major roadway arterial prioritizing fast, high-volume traffic movement over safe, pedestrian accessibility does not incentivize positive connections.
A good example of how this divide was overcome is at Texas State University in San Marcos, where the once insular Fine Arts programs were housed in the campus core, and a perimeter wall and surface parking lots separated the campus from its historic downtown. As a solution, the university constructed a highly visible new Fine Arts center at the campus edge, removing both wall and surface lot barriers. In addition, a new adjacent parking structure allows visitors to park near local restaurants before enjoying a performance. These small details helped to create a more integrated community that could benefit from one another.