... like Ann Arbor, Madison, Chapel Hill, Cambridge, Berkeley, Boulder, etc.
Most cities lack the pedestrian density to support exclusively pedestrian malls. College towns such as Boulder (pictured at right), Burlington, Vermont, and Charlottesville are exceptions, because of how town centers leverage the adjacent university campuses.
Last night I was talking with a colleague in preparation for the follow up piece on Prince George's County embarking on a zoning rewrite, and we were talking about what I call the "NIH effect," in Montgomery County, where people with high levels of education and relatively high incomes cluster around NIH because they work there, and how this impacts the schools and other civic institutions in the area.
It might not be as pronounced as it once was, but for me there was signature impact, because I remember being astounded back in 1979 as a sophomore in college mingling with so many kids from Montgomery County--typically they went to high schools like Whitman--how smart they were and how most had NIH lineage.
He brought up the University of Maryland and the fact that it doesn't have nearly the same kind of impact in Prince George's County that NIH does in Montgomery County, or the kind of impact that a typical large state university has on its environs. (A lot of UMD students commute too, which dissipates some of the critical mass effect that a major state university can have on the local economy.)
Anti-college town policies in "College" Park.
We discussed how virtually every decision that the City of College Park and its Council makes is designed to make it impossible for a traditional college town to develop there, why the "commercial district" around the campus is pretty much pathetic, etc.
While there is a dense cluster of university buildings at Ann Arbor's core-central campus, it is surrounded on three sides by neighborhoods and two campus-related commercial districts, and the city's old "downtown" is just a few blocks west.
Highly educated and paid UMD staff and faculty have few reasons to live in the city.
Because there isn't much of a center outside the campus, faculty and staff have no compelling reason to live in College Park, especially because PG's schools lag those of certain other jurisdictions.
No network effect.
By not having much "there there," the City of College Park and Prince George's County lose a wide variety of potentially beneficial impacts, especially for the schools.
The kind of "network effect" doesn't exist around the University of Maryland in the same way that such benefits are derived from NIH or the impact of children of faculty attending local public schools in cities like Ann Arbor, Michigan (etc.), the participation of faculty and staff in local civic affairs in a concentrated fashion, a concentrated grouping of high income consumers able to support local retail, etc.
Note that a big part of the economic impact in Ann Arbor is the University of Michigan Hospital, which is the largest employer in the city. By contrast, the University of Maryland Medical School is in Baltimore. Plus, Washtenaw County offers fewer options for high quality living, unlike how DC and Montgomery County are so close to College Park (my neighborhood is 4.25 miles from the campus by bike). So Ann Arbor has less competition for residents than College Park.
The attractiveness of college town living to alumni.
Another factor in college town success is the desire of students to remain living in cities like Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison after graduation, which helps to drive development of the commercial sector and small business development.
Both Baltimore and Philadelphia
have well-developed programs designed to keep students in the city after graduation. Such a recruitment program would be tough for College Park to pull off, the way it is now.
College towns aren't perfect.
Sure the fact that it's a college town has shaped the retail in ways that favor students and may be less attractive to non-students, but the core of the commercial areas around the central campus are distinctly better than anything in College Park.
And there are some negatives that can arise from the economic value of neighborhoods serving as high rent "student ghettoes," and the lack of social and economic diversity that results.
Part of the problem comes from when the universities experienced their primary periods of growth.
Note that "the density" and spatial organization issue mentioned in the previous post is a related issue, and in part it has to do with when the university and the neighborhoods around it developed.
Ann Arbor's core neighborhoods developed during the era of the walking and transit city, so they are denser, set up in a traditional block and grid fashion, and are eminently walkable and served by some neighborhood commercial districts.
A big difference between most of the older universities mentioned above and UMD College Park is that Maryland is more a distinct campus that is cloistered, apart and separate from the city. That's because it grew fastest in the 1950s, when the automobile dominated city planning.
Current conditions in "Downtown" College Park are anti-pedestrian. See the Washington Post piece, "Maryland to lower speed limit, expand speed cameras on troubled stretch of Route 1."
By contrast the University of Michigan's central campus is much more compact and is enveloped by the city around it. But the fact that the North Campus developed during the 1950s and 1960s and is typical of universities developed in that period is instructive.
North Campus too is disconnected from the community and cloistered. As a result, students don't spend much time there and don't like living there.
Note that as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore leaks out from its campus into Charles Village, that has provided a new source of revitalization energy to that neighborhood. The university has also significantly expanded its community connection and outreach effort.
State Street in Madison, Wisconsin connects the campus and the State Capitol and is now closed to motor vehicle traffic. Flickr photo by Richard Hurd.
The spatial organization of Madison and Berkeley are somewhat different in that the campuses are large and somewhat apart, but in both cases, the towns connect to the campus at particular edges in a manner that still knits the campus and town together in a manner that is mutually beneficial.
It's probably too late, but making over College Park into a "true college town," using examples like Ann Arbor, Boulder, Chapel Hill and others would enable the city, county, and university to better reap a variety of positive development, community, social, and educational outcomes.
Labels: college students and the city, critical mass, economic development planning, university-community revitalization, urban design/placemaking