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Healthy Friction

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 michael_hanley@gensler.com

Reader Comments (4)

I think the author makes some great points here. I went to school at the University of Arizona. Although we are neither a huge city nor university, it has been interesting to watch both try and grow along with each other. Students take pride in walking or biking to campus, and therefore desire a university that is more physically connected to the surrounding areas. With this closeness in proximity brings some undesired consequences however. Every year a new building goes up or old ones are restored, causing major traffic delays and construction zones along streets around the university. This can be a major headache for residents and students alike. On the other hand, it is also apparent that Tucson locals are extremely supportive of their hometown university and take a lot of pride in their school (maybe because that's all Tucson has in terms of sports, really). Over the years I have witnessed this love-hate relationship of Tucson residents and the university. My conclusion is that the benefits of being well connected to the surrounding city far outweigh any drawbacks, or as Michael put it "a little friction isn't always such a bad thing."

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I attended undergrad at Northwestern University, which historically has had a delicate relationship with the surrounding community of Evanston, Illinois. There seemed to be yearly attempts by some group or other to force NU to start paying property taxes. And yes, growth is always painful in land-locked universities – not only the short-term disruption of traffic and noise, but the long-term transformation of the urban fabric. Yet there are countless examples of how Northwestern benefits Evanston (all of the fantastic – and inexpensive - student theater productions, for starters). And Northwestern undoubtedly knows what a benefit it is to be embedded in such a vibrant community. If hard pressed, I’d bet both sides wouldn’t have it any other way.
08.17.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Hanley
Thanks for sharing that personal example! I totally agree. I'm glad you brought this whole issue up because I have witnessed it with my own eyes for years. Looking forward to more great blog posts.

If you'd like to connect and talk further you can find either Aden Acklin (CFO at Aqua Design International) or Dave Acklin (President of Aqua Design International) on LinkedIn and connect with them there. Much appreciated!

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