It’s time to blur the lines between town and dress – Common Edge

In London, where I live there are 23 universities. These universities form an institutional population of almost half a million people. In a city of nearly 10 million people, 5% may seem like a small number, but it is a significant number, roughly the population of Atlanta. As the city becomes smaller, the share can increase dramatically. In our neighboring cities of Oxford (population 150,000), 40% of the population is institutional; in Cambridge (125,000 inhabitants) this is 33%. Campus and city are so intertwined in these places that a plan for one is almost necessarily also a plan for the other.

In their origins, many American universities looked to Oxbridge for inspiration in their urban form. It can be seen in the ubiquitous quadrangles and neo-Gothic architecture, but in the manifestation of the New World came an innovation: the campus as a place in its own right. Something has been lost in translation because there isn’t a campus in Oxford or Cambridge per se. The universities are diffuse; However, many of their university grounds are closed off from the city. Their collegiate systems result in a patchwork of cloistered domains, whether designed in the 14th or 20th centuries (look to St Catherine’s College, Oxford or Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, for modernist reinterpretations), but each is part of a larger whole . The universities are everywhere in their cities.

In Oxford you will find the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodeleian district, the historic heart of the university where locals, tourists and the university come together. In other parts of the city there is the newer Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and Oxford Science Area; Colleges, faculties, departments and institutes are spread across the city. Two innovation/science campuses are planned at Osney Mead and Begbroke. They are three miles apart. Recognizing its role as a shaper of the city, the university recently established Oxford University Development, a joint venture that is developing both locations and investing in improving the city’s infrastructure. Cambridge is following a similar pattern, with the university building new urban extensions that aim to increase housing supply in what is one of Europe’s hottest property markets.

These are university cities that have emerged through an organic process over the centuries. Could this be the spatial future for the American university?

Look above Providence, Rhode Island and the figure ground of Brown University appears from the city’s core. In 1770 the college moved to its present location, a 20-acre estate on College Hill, owned by the Brown family, its principal benefactors. It grew incrementally around a central quad in the 19th and 20th centuries, intricately interweaving town and dress to create today’s College Hill neighborhood.

Providence is one of the oldest cities in America, and like Oxbridge, much of Brown predates the automobile. The result is that university and non-university buildings are closer together. The building footprint is smaller than many newer universities. This offers many micro-opportunities for adjacent areas and interactions between the boundary line of the university and that of the city, between public and academic life.

Does a walled campus make sense? Or is a university like Brown an open and porous citizen of the city? It is important to decide which is the case because the two require very different types of plans. A campus plan prioritizes interior order and legibility and emphasizes defining edges; but what might be more appropriate is a neighborhood plan, which attempts to reach out with a more informal and incremental urban design and softened edges. Many urban universities are in fact neighborhoods.

Not every campus is urban; indeed, many Americans find themselves in small towns. Take Williams College, where I studied. Williams characterizes an American preference for locating colleges on the border rather than in cities. ‘Town’ is pretty much one street and a few blocks of chic homes blending into a rural landscape. Everything else in between is “dress.” Founded at the end of the 18th century, Williams gradually accumulated a large number of properties stretching across the virgin landscape. Today it owns more than 450 hectares of the city’s total of 2,176 hectares. It may be a relatively small institution (by choice), but the college is by far the biggest player. This suggests that responsibility for land management is central to university planning. Despite the splendid isolation, Williams’ Thoreau-esque setting is deceptive. It’s not alone. It is located among biomes and habitats, a natural and cultural landscape that requires care and respect. This suggests a gentle approach to building design.

One of the most beautiful cultural buildings in the US is an example of this. Tadao Ando’s expansion of the Clark Art Institute, an educational museum affiliated with the university, is so placed in the Berkshire landscape that it almost disappears. Generous internal spaces look out onto the Berkshire hills, with a man-made landscape by Reed Hilderbrand blending in with the surrounding nature, and by extension Ando’s building, whilst softening even the clumsier neighbors – a Beaux Arts – 1950s folly and a 1970s brutalist piece from The Architects Collaborative that feels more Bostonian than Berkshires. Architects SO-IL’s recently unveiled design for the Williams College Museum of Art takes a similar landscape-oriented approach. What happens in this case is less a campus of formal buildings and lawns, and more an approach to buildings hidden in nature.

In a very different setting, Rockefeller University is located in a compact citadel on the East River on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Walled off from the city around it, this 20th century campus is more similar in layout and behavior to a medieval Oxbridge college. The university can only really go up, and that is what happened. But cross the street and check out the immediate neighbors. There is a broader medical community that runs between 62nd and 72nd, between First Avenue and Franklin D Roosevelt Drive, which spans more than 20 contiguous blocks and includes several global institutions engaged in the study and practice of medicine and biomedical research: the Rockefeller University Hospital for Special Surgery, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That’s some serious scientific power.

So what seems at first glance to be a self-contained place is in reality part of an episodic urban knowledge ecosystem. Yet Rockefeller’s original campus is bounded by York Avenue and the East River (using air rights over FDR Drive) and spans five blocks between 63rd and 68th. It is fully enclosed on three sides and accessed through a single main entrance on East 66th Street. If there was ever a prerequisite for porosity, this would be it. These medical neighbors will undoubtedly share many of the same spatial needs and ambitions.

America’s universities, the natural home of innovation, could be the key to unlocking more sustainable cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts, illustrates this possibility more than any other American city. Here is a huge university facility – we can call it MITHarvard – that occupies two ends of the city, but is gradually moving closer together as both universities have expanded. The institutional population of the two universities comprises one third of Cambridge’s total population.

Reflecting the decentralized nature of the way it is governed, Harvard is always engaged in ‘planning’. Harvard’s assets have now spread across the Charles River into Boston itself. Yet it struck me recently that MIT has never, and does not, ever follow a campus plan want one. There is a sense that such a plan would limit the opportunistic approach to campus growth.

MIT and Harvard, like Oxford and Cambridge, maintain a symbiotic relationship, bringing social, cultural and economic benefits to their city, and vice versa. What if the universities worked with the city to form a more comprehensive framework for Cambridge’s sustainable urban development? Scaling up in this way could deliver real benefits to a host of issues, from housing affordability to housing start-ups, making investments in public transport and pushing the envelope on climate resilience.

A strong city offers a university the most important ingredients for success. Whether it concerns attractiveness to talent or the safety of students, or strengthening the institutional brand and enriching diversity. Can the identity of the university be found outside the campus, somewhere between a scattered collection of buildings within a city and a whole experience of the city itself? The city as a university and the university as a city? Maybe it’s time to retire the campus plan as we knew it. Instead, there should be a more outward-looking type of plan, where the often much more important and complex issues related to the context of the university are given as much importance as what has been carefully planned within it.

American universities could be powerful tools for progressive urban planning. Where they are located, there is typically no other landowner ready to play such a transformative role in local development. They fulfill a unique, privileged role as placemakers. Perhaps it is time to return the campus to the university’s original vision: as part of the policy, where the boundaries are blurred.

Featured image: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.