The Urban Campus and the Great Place

By Matt Bell

The college campus is perhaps one of the most unique archetypes in American urbanism. It has persisted for over three centuries as an icon of the ideals of American higher education exerting a powerful emotive force. University graduates in the U.S. often look upon their years on the leafy quadrangles of their alma mater as among the most memorable and important of their lives.

Yet the bucolic campus is perhaps just one of many different and evolving campus archetypes. Urban campuses have, for years, served as a force in the vitality of life of American cities and towns. They have contributed a sense of place that blends seamlessly with the cities in which they are found. Campuses like New York University in New York’s Greenwich Village and George Washington University in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of the District of Columbia, while absent the “leafy quadrangles,” evoke a powerful, uniquely positive influence on the character of their local campus communities. Frequently, they must adapt to a pre-existing street grid or urban plan that has been established for many years, often long before their arrival. Problems of future growth and expansion cannot be resolved by the typical horizontal growth pattern, often followed in the more traditional campus setting.

Due to its limit on horizontal growth, the urban university is always in the position of evaluating its inventory of campus properties for how efficiently those properties support the university’s overall mission. An urban university must also figure out how to carve out a sense of place or campus identity within a context that is not controlled by the university alone. Frequently those priorities play out as a careful balancing between the desires of the university and the wishes of the local community. Essential to the urban university is the manner in which the identity of place is established and maintained through such strategies as adaptive re-use of historic properties or the celebration of places such as a streetscape or an ensemble of buildings. These are often the smaller “great places” that substitute for the great quadrangles of the more traditional campus model.

The urban university also benefits from the sense of place generated by adjacent neighborhoods and institutions often not officially associated with the university itself. The National Mall and Capitol Hill for instance, both within a short walk or subway ride from the campus of George Washington University, provide an immediate sense of the “greater campus” for the university and help to establish a campus identity that complements the shared identity of its adjoining neighborhood.

Vertical growth and extension are important characteristics (as well as challenges) that distinguish the urban campus from the pastoral model. “Place making” within the urban campus model requires, in addition to sensitivity to the imperatives of function and programmatic proximity, an approach that connects places vertically within new and existing buildings. Strategic design interventions at a scale suited to the urban campus are necessary. Elements such as a view to a courtyard that connects the vertical circulation on all levels of a multi-story building, or a connection between floors of a residence hall building can help to establish “place” and provide settings for the informal exchange of ideas and learning that the best university settings provide. This approach requires careful measuring of the unique scale of the urban campus, and insights into the constraints provided by the existing context and contingencies (and possibilities) of program.

In the best solutions, the vertical campus provides the setting for “the space and the place” unique to each location yet capable of sustaining a level of potential interaction that supports the exchange of ideas and memorializes our most vivid and profound college memories.