The symbiotic relationship that urban colleges have with cities is sometimes tested by the need for space.
The volatile relationship between a college and the community that surrounds it is often as old as the institution itself.
This is the subject of the recently published book The City As Campus by Sharon Haar, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Using Chicago as a backdrop, Haar chronicles what she calls the “constant friction” between the two entities.
(Full disclosure: I personally know Sharon through my studies at UIC. But my own biases aside, the book is a must read for anyone interested in the intersections of urbanism and higher education.)
According to Haar, universities’ insatiable appetite for space is often the cause of this friction. Schools like Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago have all become enveloped by a dense urban context, a proximity that affords students invaluable access to the surrounding city. Yet this symbiotic relationship also has its disadvantages: physical growth at these universities is often an extremely challenging proposition because they’ve been so hemmed into the urban fabric.
Part of the friction between campus and community is steeped in history. Institutions such as UIC infamously displaced entire neighborhoods in an effort to carve out an enclave, resulting in years of animosity and distrust. (It probably doesn’t help that most of these institutions are tax-exempt).
Such extreme expansion practices are, thankfully, largely a thing of the past. But colleges and universities still face the question of how to grow without alienating their neighbors in the process. The friction is still there, bubbling just below the surface.
Some, like the University of Chicago, take great pains in encouraging public discourse before breaking ground on large projects. Other institutions like Harvard – and its master plan to expand its campus into the Boston community of Allston –incorporate community-centric program into the mix. Still others, such as New York University and Columbia College, enmesh themselves within the city, so that the division between campus and context is almost imperceptible.
Undoubtedly, it’s in the university’s best interest to stay connected to the surrounding city, not only physically but programmatically. The benefit that such proximity affords its students is virtually incalculable.
As Haar aptly puts it: “American universities have always been simultaneously local and global: place-bound, yet containing a depth of global knowledge… unavailable in practically any other place – except the city itself.”
In that sense, then, maybe a little friction isn’t always such a bad thing.
Michael Hanley is a designer in the education practice at Gensler’s Chicago office and has a background in journalism. He’s interested in the unique design opportunities presented by urban college campuses such as Columbia College Chicago, and finding innovative ways to connect higher learning institutions with speculative development enterprises. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org