The Town-Gown Dilemma

Why So Many American Universities Hide Behind Their Walls, and Why They Need to Stop

April 15, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

The archetypal American campus — set amidst green lawns and spacious grounds — is largely the result of a singular act of Congress: the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890, which initiated the most prolific period of campus creation and created hundreds of land-grant colleges across the 50 states. These agricultural and engineering research universities were, with few exceptions, placed in rural settings appropriate for the study of agriculture and in places where government land was available.

But, over the course of a century, many of the universities placed on the peripheries of towns and cities (Manhattan, Kansas; or State College, Pennsylvania, for example) eventually became surrounded by the towns — now grown to cities — that served them. The result is a “town-and-gown” tension felt uniquely by American universities that once eschewed the city but now find themselves closely bounded by an environment their founders may not have anticipated.

As well, many younger Americans now aspire to live in cities, which is fueling a desire for a more integrated student experience: one that blends the benefits of academia with all the perks of an urban lifestyle. This is driving many of those land-grant colleges to create more vital student environments to compete with more urbane schools in well-established cities.

As a result, campus planners must frequently retrofit a haphazard, or unsavory, urban context, or invent one that is entirely missing. To do so, a university and its leaders must think outside of the academic walls, and must hone a new set of skills in partnering with local municipalities, land owners and developers.

In just one case, Kent State University, campus and town leadership had to overcome years of political divisions that began with the tragic shootings in 1970 and resulted in physical divisions when a highway was unadvisedly constructed between the campus and the town. After several years of planning and negotiation, a new retail district now reaches towards the campus while the campus esplanade and academic buildings stretch towards the town. Town and gown now connect at a new campus gateway, and an intermodal center anchors a $150 million mixed-use development that has brought office workers and residents back to the downtown. Planning led the way by balancing the requirements of TIGER transit funding, State DOT regulations, and developer interests with the city and university leadership.

By comparison, Brown University, once designated Rhode Island’s land-grant college, required a town-gown approach to manage development pressures that threatened to overwhelm the campus with inappropriate uses and out-of-scale development. Reaching out to the city and neighborhood, stakeholders created a forum for cooperation that resulted in new licensing regulations of bars, architectural design guidelines for new development and additional funding for private management of the retail district with university participation. 

Many universities are struggling with the complexities of working in close quarters with their host towns and cities.  A new approach to cooperative planning can result in stronger communities and a more attractive campus to attract the students and faculty of tomorrow.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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