Lessons From A School You’re Not Enrolled In

What College Campuses Can Teach Us About Creating More Holistic Communities

The Lawn, The Rotunda and Pavilions I & III at the University of Virginia. Source: News.Virginia.Edu

Upon reflection, many recall college as the best 4 years of their lives. Instead of exploring this (there’s way too much to dissect anyway), I’d like to understand what impact the collegiate built environment has in evoking so much passion, and how we might be able to translate these principles to evoke passion in, and shape the post-graduate form of, the communities we spend a majority of our lives in.

Far from being academic play pens for students of varying degrees of social awkwardness, college campuses are complex mini cities that have the power to anchor regional economies. The best campuses & their immediate surroundings are dreams for urbanists and economic development groups alike. They’re walkable, support many small businesses in mixed-use structures, are rich in outdoor public spaces and indoor third places, offer many different housing options, foster innovation, attract creative classes and the cultural venues that come along with them, and provide a robust foundation for the area with thousands of direct and indirect job opportunities.

Successful college communities radiate a palpable vibrancy. This vibrancy may at first seem naturally occurring (what place wouldn’t benefit from the sheer force of an annual resupply of thousands of wide-eyed teenagers?), but in fact relies on a few key elements. As I see it, these elements can be grouped into three broader categories: the Built Environment, the Social Realm, and a Freedom of Exploration. These three factors, which can often be at odds with one another in the “real world”, find harmony on & around campuses. Understanding the interplay between these elements may very well unlock our ability to create more holistic, supportive places that people can live in far longer than their 4 years at college.

1) The Built Environment: Cohesion, Scale and Shared Places

The modern college campus is descended from Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village (1817) at The University of Virginia (full disclosure, I went to Architecture School at UVA and am a card carrying Wahoo). Through his design work as an architect and time spent traveling in Europe as Minister to France, Jefferson gradually developed his ideas for what an ideal university could look like. Eschewing the single building universities that existed at the time, he believed “an University should not be an house but a village”, elaborating that “village form is preferable to a single great building for many reasons, particularly on account of fire, health, economy, peace and quiet”. The village design encouraged a community of education and interaction between all of its members. Oriented around a central lawn, Professors lived and lectured in pavilions flanked by colonnades of student dormitories. The University’s library, the Rotunda, served as the focal point of the Academical Village, emphasizing the importance of education in tying the community together.

Jefferson’s Original Plan for the Academical Village. Source: National Parks Service
Overview of the University of Virginia today. Source: The American Planning Association

Jefferson foresaw the University growing iteratively from its core, extending outwards into its broader surroundings in a coherent way. As a single building, a University would have had no direction on how to grow itself, leaving little hope for supporting services to do anything but devolve into a disorganized chaos. This planning was Jefferson’s key insight. Its scalability allowed for easy extensions, whether they be additions on Grounds, off campus housing, restaurants, bars, offices, or any other building type. Its scale also has allowed for communities beyond academia to grow organically, as they rest on the same village principles of communal interaction. If one visits Charlottesville today, they’ll notice a remarkable harmony between the original University buildings and the surrounding town, creating a deeply satisfying and well-integrated environment.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be taller buildings or structures clad in materials other than the area’s ubiquitous red brick, as Charlottesville is cohesive despite newer building styles and uses not found in Jefferson’s day. Rather, newer additions and outliers can strengthen the whole when they adhere to the basic language set forth by the plan. What this means in non-jargon is for a place to remain human scaled (so as to not make us feel small & insignificant-few people enjoy that), provide a sense of enclosure (which makes us feel secure when occupying or moving through space), offer interesting or beautiful things to look at (to keep our minds engaged-we’re unconsciously bored and no small part frightened when we walk by blank concrete walls, evolutionarily speaking), and create plenty of public/semi-public spaces as it grows.

These public/semi-public spaces, known as third places, abound in college communities. A third place is a social setting anywhere outside of a person’s two usual social environments, their home and their office (or classroom for students). Ray Oldenberg, who coined the term and detailed the concept extensively in his classic The Great Good Place, lays out eight key characteristics. Of relevance here, third places are accommodating & accessible, level social & economic status, are neutral grounds that allow people to come and go as they please and keep a low profile while doing so if they desire to, and have a playful mood with a cast of regulars that set the tone of a place. Seemingly everywhere on & around campuses fit this billing: quads, pocket parks, libraries, student unions, dining halls, college bars, coffee shops, gyms, studios and multi-purpose facilities. Even academic buildings become third places outside of lecture hours when they’re left open for students to study or hang out in. The vibrancy of a campus is directly tied to its abundance of third places, which pull people out of their homes and away from their classes/offices to become a part of the community, even when they’re passively involved.

Students & City Goers in Washington Square Park. Source: Daytripper University

2) The Social Realm: Support From a Community

Leaving home for school can be a stressful experience. For most, it’s the first time they’ll live outside of their parents’ homes. Colleges ease this transition by offering a built in support network. Every person in one’s class goes through the same experience, regardless of where they’re from, what their background is, or where they want to go in life. All are roughly on the same path they got on at Kindergarten, graduating successively to bigger schools with bigger people.

When choosing to go to a certain school, a shared bond is created with classmates who made the very same decision. From the outset, this bond is strengthened. Students eat at the same few places as each other, root for the same sports teams, sit in similar lecture halls, and take part in the same ice breakers many thought they left behind in middle school. There’s a comfort in broadly being aware of the community around yourself, even if you don’t know each person.

When you become comfortable enough to ascend out of these basic social support systems, you can choose to be a part of different sub-communities to further explore your interests. Clubs, fraternities & sororities and societies are all sanctioned by colleges, and (mostly) give students runway to operate as they see fit. By the time one graduates, what could have been a terrifyingly lonely experience results in the most concentrated sociability many are likely to have for their entire lives.

This ends with graduation. Without the guiding support of a college allowing you to find your feet, many find themselves alone, relatively speaking. The communities that you’ve built up over the last four or so years are no longer physically present. While vestiges of them may exist in the form of friends who moved to the same city or town you did, it’s not quite the same. Post graduation, you’re abruptly removed from a path you’ve travelled since pre-kindergarten. There’s no obvious next step forward as there had been for every previous step in your life, with the world intimidating graduates with its vast possibilities. What should I do with my life? Where do I go to meet people? Where do I go to pursue things I’m interested in? What structure is there for me after I finish work for the day? Will I even have the time or energy to do anything after I finish work for the day? In a city as a big as New York or Los Angeles, how do I avoid becoming just another figure rushing by? These questions can overwhelm even the most self-assured. Eventually, we’re just expected to get along on whatever unguided path we stumble upon.

These feelings of alienation in larger cities are a big reason why many people love small towns. There is a commonality that is akin to what is experienced in school. It’s possible to be aware of nearly everyone in your community, and feel comfortable enough to take part in it. In smaller towns, it’s likely you live closer to family, and friendships may feel easier to maintain as there are not so many things competing for your or their time as there would be in a city.

3) Freedom of Exploration: Autonomy & the Ability to Pursue One’s Interests

The built environment and social support systems of campuses serve as the background to facilitate a college’s most important function: enabling its students to pursue whatever they might be interested in doing, within the bounds of law and morality, of course. Having personal autonomy for the first time allows students to explore things they might never have been exposed to before. There are few restrictions on one’s time outside of 2 or 3 hours of class per day, so people are generally only limited by their pursuit of their interests. Whether these are academic in nature, business endeavors or personal experiences, this freedom to explore is not so free outside of the college environment.

In smaller towns, ideas that stray from the norm are either not given a moment’s attention, or are actively discouraged. New ideas might be perceived as threatening to the tranquil order that small towns preside over. When everyone thinks like everyone else, new ideas can feel like attacks on the status quo, indictments of those who don’t readily take them up.

The University of Chicago. Source: Honor Society

In larger cities, on the other hand, there is no shortage of encouragement for innovation, experiences and the pursuit of new types of information. But the realities of living in an expensive urban area mean that one is limited in how aggressively they can pursue their own interests. One may want to become a ballerina, launch the world’s next great start up, or simply read all of Dumas’ novels, but these can’t be easily done when there is rent to pay, and work to do in order to pay the rent. If you fail, or don’t fulfill your obligations of life in the real world, you have little support to fall back on.

Tying It All Together

College is undoubtedly a special time and place in one’s life. While there are aspects unique to one’s age that evoke nostalgia for college, many of the new things experienced, lessons learned, friendships forged, and memories made are enabled by the physical form and support networks of the campuses themselves. If either of these two elements are deficient, one’s experience may be altered in meaningful ways, reducing one’s potential fondness for these formative years.

Is it possible to re-create the harmonious conditions of campuses in the real world in order to evoke the same passion many have for their college towns, or is it age specific? I think we can re-create these conditions, but only if we’re extremely careful in the balance. As can be seen across the country, it’s easy to create gated neighborhoods or age restricted communities that fall short of this high mark. They may contain elements of a campus environment (club houses as third places, programming to facilitate friendships after bingo night), but they’re insufficient for the complexity that the most successful places require.

Colleges are not designed solely for 18–25 year olds, not really. They’re designed to anchor a larger economy, to provide jobs to professors and researches, maintenance and food service staff. They’re designed to welcome families to ‘trick or treat’ on the quad and retired couples to lectures & cultural performances. They’re designed to cultivate the most extraordinary passions, and enable people from all stations of society to ascend to a better life.

Compartmentalizing cities & towns with campuses every quarter mile is no way to build. But, if we learn the lessons from the foundational elements of these special places, we can create stronger, more holistic communities.

We can extend the reach of cultural spaces & mixed-use buildings. We can offer various housing accommodations, without excluding a type that may be more accessible to a given group (off-campus landlords can carve 3 apartments out of single family homes like the finest butcher). We can build pathways that privilege and protect people from environments taken over by cars. We can build robust support systems by multiplying general purpose community space and renting it out to clubs and grassroots organizations subsidized by municipal dollars, the same way colleges do for the hundreds of disparate interests students have, which they deem worthy of fostering. We can create third places that open their arms to the community, instead of transactional places that open their hands in demand of money to participate. We can encourage people to pursue their passions and interests without fear of having to compromise on their vision, which may just take a bit longer to manifest.

We can build places where people look forward to the next year as holding promise for being the best year of their life, without having to look in the distant past, grasping for a fleeting reality.

We can do all of this, but only if we push back on the notion that once you’ve graduated from school, it’s up to you to figure it out as there’s little community left for you. Let’s get to learning again. Let’s get to supporting each other again. Let’s get to rejecting a status quo that rejects far too many.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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