Campus Planning…What’s the Deal?

29 Feb

After graduating from my masters programs this past August I made a dive into the job market and came across a lot of firms and professionals that specialized in campus planning. Some of these made a big distinction between campus planning and town and city planning, and often only concentrated on one type or the other. Often times I would hear, “you obviously have experience in urban planning and design…but what about campus planning?” This question first baffled me, but of course there are logistical reasons for this separation, mostly a difference in the development process. Universities and colleges have private ownership of large amounts of land, different funding processes, and a sometimes intricate growth and space organization plans that differ greatly from more traditional projects. Even after learning more about the campus planning process, I still have to ask, why the distinct separation between campus planning and land-use planning?

This issue lies in a great debate of what urban design actually is and what scope it covers. I think there is an assumption among many, that urban design is at a very small-scale and deals primarily with the design of streetscape and placemaking. I couldn’t disagree more. As I’ve written before, urban design is based around certain principles that can be applied across many different situations and scales within the built environment. Campus planning is a perfect example of how urban design principles such as connectivity, legibility, variety, and adaptability, to name a few, can be applied on the large and small scales: looking at how a campus connects with its greater context vs. how a person feels in one small space.

Let me interject here to tell you a personal anecdote. I have always had a huge appreciation for the importance of campus design. I have spent a majority of my life on campuses: my elementary and middle schools were on a 122 acre campus, my high school was designed and built in the early 1800s, and my college was once part of the 1904 World’s Fair. Alternatively my graduate school lacked identity and legibility. It operated more as a collection of buildings. On graduation day there wasn’t even a place to take a picture. I have always been acutely aware of how campuses have operated, but more importantly how they have made me feel and in turn, how they have contributed to my personal identity.

Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the Phillips Academy Andover clock tower appear in the tree tops as I make a turn on Massachusetts Highway 28. That is the urban design principle, legibility, at it’s best. That clock tower is practical: it lets you know where you are on campus and what direction you need to walk in, and its emotional: it is a landmark for the school and your experiences there. But what Andover really was to me, was a home. Its sprawling greens, intimate courtyards, and building space planning created the backdrop of my adolescence.

The social implications of urban design are very much related to place identity, social inclusion, and community cohesion. In no other place than campuses are these more important. Today, as the urban and suburban continues to grow, how campuses connect and reference their local neighborhoods and cities are becoming increasingly relevant. Should campuses be walled off for exclusivity like Duke? Or completely integrated like NYU? Or perhaps somewhere in between like Harvard?

Duke University, Harvard University, New York University

Duke University’s campus is self-contained surrounded by private property. It is accessible on private roads. (Source) Harvard University fits within Cambridge’s block structure, but is organized around courtyards and quads. While it is clear that these very much “belong” to the school, they are open to the public. (Source) New York University and New York City are one in the same. Campus open spaces are city public spaces, which can confuse the place identity of the institution. (Source)

While the answer to these questions varies based on context, I think in most cases a university should never segregate itself from the world around it. In doing so, they could keep their students from the real life learning experiences that surround them, and could instill a sense of eliteness and social exclusion within the community. But because the edges where campus meets the city are becoming increasingly crucial to how institutions and the city relate to one another, I believe it is a detriment for campus planning and greater land-use planning/design to be separated. On the large design scale, they are one in the same, and urban design principles apply to both. Hopefully as the urban environment continues to expand and be retrofitted, our private and public worlds can meld together a little more seamlessly. In my opinion, there are only good implications in creating a connected and well designed boundary between the two.

One Response to “Campus Planning…What’s the Deal?”

  1. PlanningTank (@PlanningTank) April 21, 2017 at 4:28 PM #


    We appreciate your concern and was delighted to read the entire piece of content.
    Our concern remains with the understanding of what Planners can do and of complete urban planning profession. Great cities, public spaces are not possible if the stakeholders do not work together and to make this happen everyone needs to be share a common goal.
    This can be communicated but the difficulty which arise due to different understanding among professionals might prevent in fulfilling this goal and results in inefficiencies Another issue remains with urban planning being a very less known profession as highlighted on our website. We request you to have a look at it and share it if you find it useful & true!

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