The traditional perimeter between an academic institution and its surrounding urban environment is no longer a defined line, but a blurred edge. As colleges shift from being introverted environments to becoming more integrated within their surrounding communities – urban, suburban or rural settings – the synergistic relationship between a college and its community can lead to healthy local economies and engaged communities.
For both to flourish – as opposed to merely survive – they must work together in a symbiotic way.
The development of housing, mixed-use, academic, entrepreneurial and research environments, both on and off campus, helps blur those boundaries. Every campus has different financial needs, strategic partnerships, neighborhood contexts, university administrations and municipal leadership. Therefore, the means to developing a more robust town-and-gown relationship is unique to each institution.
While the partnership outcomes are unique, students, faculty, staff and administrations have a common understanding that recruiting, lifestyle and professional pipelines can evolve into something more profound than physical adjacency. Finding places and environments that are welcoming and encourage town/gown community interaction is creating new potentials that benefit both local residents and campus communities, including:
- Business incubation spaces
- Joint research laboratories
- Community gathering environments
- Amenities (i.e. performance spaces, restaurants, and retail venues)
- Consolidated student housing and “cleaned up” adjacent neighborhoods
- New parking and multi-modal traffic plans
- Economic incentive programs for corporate recruitment
- Accessibility to health and wellness knowledge and resources
Unlike a corporation, an academic institution is not movable. Despite the advent of online instruction, most institutions are intrinsically connected to their location and “sense of place” in the hearts and minds of the academic community. For today’s high-caliber 18- to 25-year-old students, an active, bustling environment with professional pipelines is proving to be highly attractive for recruitment. From small towns to large cities, as universities and their surroundings recognize this inextricable link, the zones that have traditionally separated campus from town have melded, connecting campus planning, urban planning, and regional economic development goals in a way that remains unique for every institution, yet speaks to an evident national trend in higher education.
A major challenge for colleges and universities is housing students. Some institutions are now requiring all students to live on campus, easing the burden on the neighborhood and reinforcing the college experience with an engaged student body. When students live and eat on campus together, student retention is higher and students are more fully vested in the institution and its culture.
There are different approaches to address the growing need for housing. Some colleges construct their own on-campus residence halls, while others collaborate with private developers to build housing adjacent to campus. The latter approach directs students away from residential apartments and multifamily homes, lessening the impact – and rising rents – on the surrounding neighborhood.
There is a rebirth of the college campus in urban centers, as students demand an environment that is satisfying to their lifestyle standards. With lower numbers of college-aged students driving, there is less need for parking and more importance on providing an environment that is easily accessible via foot, bike or public transportation. Fostering partnerships with private developments on or adjacent to campus helps colleges offer a more robust living-learning environment with academic, recreational and healthful living amenities. The introduction of mixed-use/retail to traditional use campus buildings also enlivens the area, enhancing the neighborhood for students and the community.
Further breaking down the hard lines are the research nodes privately built in close proximity to colleges. Companies desiring access to new talent create a meeting point where students can work independently in lab settings and then transition after graduation directly into careers. In Boston, with multiple major research institutions and numerous companies in high tech, biotech and pharma, these enterprise relationships between higher education and the corporate world blur the delineation between on-campus and off-campus academic work and life.
A collaborative planning and design approach between academic institutions and their surrounding cities and towns can help create top-notch campus facilities that provide a high-quality educational experience for students while skillfully incorporating the needs of the community. Leveraging the energy in our higher education system helps establish great places to live for all.
Joseph Herzog, AIA, is a principal at Shepley Bulfinch, a national architecture firm with offices in Boston, Houston and Phoenix.