It’s Time to Blur the Boundaries Between Town and Gown
10 mins read

It’s Time to Blur the Boundaries Between Town and Gown

In London, where I live, there are 23 universities. Those universities make up an institutional population of nearly half a million people. In a city with almost 10 million residents, 5% may seem a small number, but it’s a significant one, roughly the population of Atlanta. Shrink the city, and the proportion can increase dramatically. In our neighbouring cities of Oxford (population 150,000), 40% of the population is institutional; in Cambridge (population 125,000), it’s 33%. Campus and city are so intertwined in those places that a plan for one is almost necessarily a plan for the other.

In their origins, many American universities looked to Oxbridge for inspiration in their urban form. It’s seen in the ubiquitous quadrangles and neo-gothic architecture, but in its New World manifestation came an innovation: the campus as a standalone place. Something became lost in the translation, because at Oxford or Cambridge, there is no campus per se. The universities are diffuse; however, many of their college precincts are closed off from the city. Their collegiate systems result in a patchwork of cloistered domains, whether designed in the 14th century or the 20th century (look to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, or Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, for modernist reinterpretations), but each is a piece of a greater whole. The universities are present throughout their cities. 

In Oxford, there’s the Radcliffe Camera and Bodeleian quarter, the historic heart of the university where locals, tourists, and university co-mingle. In other parts of the city, there are the newer Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and Oxford Science Area; colleges, faculties, departments, and institutes are dotted around town. Two innovation/science campuses are being planned at Osney Mead and Begbroke. They’re three miles apart. Recognizing its role as a shaper of the city, the university has recently set up Oxford University Development, a joint venture that is developing both sites and making investments in improving the city’s infrastructure. Cambridge follows a similar pattern, with the university building new urban extensions that aim to increase housing supply in what is one of Europe’s hottest property markets. 

So, these are university cities that emerged through an organic process over centuries. Might this be the spatial future for the American university?

Look above Providence, Rhode Island, and Brown University’s figure ground appears from the grain of the city. In 1770, the college moved to its current location, an 8-acre estate on College Hill, owned by the Brown family, its principal benefactors. It grew incrementally around a central quad during the 19th and 20th centuries, weaving town and gown intricately together, creating today’s College Hill neighbourhood.

Providence is one of the oldest cities in America, and, like Oxbridge, much of Brown predates the automobile. The result is that college and non-college buildings are closer together. Building footprints are smaller than in many newer universities. This presents many micro-opportunities for adjacencies and interactions between the university’s boundary line and the city’s, between public and academic life.

Does a walled-off campus make sense? Or, instead, is a university like Brown an open and porous citizen of the city? Deciding which is the case is important, because the two need very different types of plans. A campus plan prioritizes the order and legibility within and places emphasis on defining edges; yet what might be more appropriate is a neighborhood plan, which seeks to reach out with a more informal and incremental urban design and softened edges. Many urban universities are effectively neighborhoods.

Not every campus is urban; indeed, many American ones are in small towns. Take Williams College, where I was an undergraduate. Williams typifies an American preference for locating colleges on the frontier rather than in cities. “Town” is pretty much one street and a few blocks of genteel houses that blend into a bucolic landscape. Everything else in between is “gown.” Williams, founded in the late 18th century, gradually accumulated a large number of properties sprawling out into the virgin landscape. Today, it holds over 450 acres of the town’s total of 2,176. It may be a relatively small institution (by choice), but the college is the biggest player for miles and miles. This suggests a responsibility for land stewardship at the heart of college planning. Despite the splendid isolation, Williams’ Thoreau-esque setting is deceiving. It is not alone. It is set amid biomes and habitats, a natural and cultural landscape that demands care and deference. This suggests a gentle approach to building design.

One of the most beautiful cultural buildings in the U.S. exemplifies this. Tadao Ando’s expansion of the Clark Art Institute, a teaching museum attached to the college, is set in its Berkshire landscape in such a way that it almost disappears. Generous internal spaces look out into the Berkshire hills, with a manmade landscape by Reed Hilderbrand blending into the surrounding nature, and by extension Ando’s building, while even softening its clunkier neighbours—a 1950s Beaux Arts folly and 1970s brutalist hunk by The Architects Collaborative, which feels more Bostonian than Berkshires. The recently unveiled design by architects SO–IL for the Williams College Museum of Art adopts a similarly landscape-led approach. What’s happening in this case is less a campus of formal buildings and lawns and more an approach of nestling buildings into nature.

In a vastly different setting, Rockefeller University occupies a compact citadel on the East River in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Walled off from the city around it, this 20th century campus is more like a Medieval Oxbridge college in plan and demeanour. The university can’t really go anywhere but up, and it has. But cross the street and check out its immediate neighbours. There is a wider medical community that runs between 62nd and 72nd, between First Avenue and Franklin D Roosevelt Drive, covering over 20 contiguous blocks that includes several global institutions dedicated to the study and practice of medicine and biomedical research: the Rockefeller University Hospital for Special Surgery, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That’s serious scientific power. 

So what at first glance seems a standalone place is actually part of an incidental urban knowledge ecosystem. Yet Rockefeller’s original campus is bounded by York Avenue and the East River (utilizing air rights over the FDR Drive), occupying five blocks between 63rd and 68th. It is completely enclosed on three sides, accessed by a single main entrance on East 66th Street. If there ever was a condition for porosity, this would be it. These medical neighbors are bound to share many of the same spatial requirements and ambitions. 

The natural cradles of innovation, America’s universities might be the key to unlocking more sustainable cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts, exemplifies this possibility more so than any American city. Here there is a vast university apparatus—we can call it MITHarvard—that occupies two ends of the city but that gradually is coming closer together as both universities have expanded. The institutional population of the two universities comprises a third of the total population of Cambridge. 

Reflecting the decentralized nature of how it is governed, Harvard is always “planning.” Harvard’s holdings today have now sprawled across the Charles River into Boston proper. Yet I was struck to learn recently that MIT has never followed a campus plan, nor does it want one. The feeling being such a plan would constrain its opportunistic approach to campus growth. 

MIT and Harvard, like Oxford and Cambridge, enjoy a symbiotic relationship, bringing social, cultural, and economic benefits to their city, and vice-versa. What if the universities teamed up with the city to shape a more comprehensive framework for Cambridge’s sustainable urban development? Scaling up in this way could deliver real benefits to a host of issues, from housing affordability to accommodating startup businesses to making investments in mass transit to pushing the boundary on climate resilience. 

A strong city provides a university with key ingredients for success. Whether it’s attractiveness to talent or student safety or boosting institutional brand and enriching diversity. Might university identity be found beyond the campus, in a territory somewhere between a scattered collection of buildings within a city and a whole experience of the city itself? The city as the university, and the university as the city? Maybe it’s time to retire the campus plan as we have known it. In its place should be a more outward-looking type of plan where the often much more significant and complex issues pertaining to the university’s context are given just as much importance as to what has carefully been planned within.

American universities could be powerful instruments for progressive urban planning. Where they are situated, there usually is no other single landowner primed to play such a transformative role in local development. They occupy a uniquely privileged role as placemakers. Perhaps then it’s time to return the campus to the original vision of the university: as part of the polis, where its boundaries are blurred.

Featured image: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.