Many American cities have focused on university based development as a catalyst for their downtowns and urban spaces. Louisville has promoted the growth of its university affiliated hospital complex on the east side of downtown. Indianapolis and Chicago both built major urban renewal type campuses – IUPUI and UIC respectively. The University of Wisconsin anchors the core of Madison, and similar patterns are repeated in college towns across the country, or in college neighborhoods like Chicago’s Hyde Park.
In my view “eds and meds” is quasi-public sector. Like government offices, they can act as an anchor of sorts, but are more rarely sources of dynamism. Also, while they attract investment and people, the interests of the university are often not aligned with those of the neighborhoods, leading almost inevitably to various town-gown type divides.
One notable exception to the standard pattern is the expanding collection of over 30 downtown Chicago colleges that has become known as “Loop U”. From a Sun-Times story from last year:
When most college students go off to campus for the first time, they typically end up in a dorm overlooking a grassy quad, classroom buildings, or perhaps the football stadium.
Not so at “Loop U,” a nickname for a recent phenomenon that this fall will bring more than 65,000 college students to live and study at more than 30 institutions of higher learning in and around downtown Chicago.
A recent report published by DePaul University says the downtown population of college students has grown 25 percent in just the last five years, making it the “biggest college town in Illinois.”
Unlike traditional campuses, in which the institution owns all the land and every building is a college building, downtown dormitories (and classroom buildings) are interspersed along city streets like Wabash, Michigan and State, blending in with the existing buildings.
I consider Chicago’s Loop U possibly the most successful example of urban university development in America. It has had an almost totally positive impact on the urban fabric of the Loop, and generated zero controversy or negativity. There are a number of elements of this that I think distinguish the Loop U approach in a positive way and make it a model that every city should study.
1. Diversity of institutions. Unlike a large, monolithic institution like Ohio State, there are over 30 different institutions in downtown Chicago. These range from a community college to the School of the Art Institute to Chicago to specialty design and culinary schools, Northwestern University medical school, a branch of DePaul, etc. This diversity has the same effect that Jane Jacobs described for diversity of uses. They bring different types of people to the Loop at different times of the day, and operate on different schedules, contributing to major activity from morning till night. Also, the diversity of institution types means that you don’t have a single profile of student who stands demographically apart from the rest of the city. While perhaps not a perfect match, the students at Loop U collectively look at a lot more like the city’s overall population than the students at most schools.
2. Small Sizes, Urban Form. A typical college campus – like UIC, for instance – is usually a huge tract or superblock site devoted entirely to university activities. The university often takes great pains to establish their perimeter, and even extend control over “buffer zones”. The essence of most schools is that they in some way stand apart from the city.
But with the Loop U institutions, while they are collectively large, most of them are of reasonable size. And they typically inhabit urban buildings that are on the same block with other types of buildings such like any other downtown structure. Some institutions, such as specialty interior design school Harrington College, actually rent space in multi-tenant commercial buildings. Larger schools like Columbia College have many facilities spread all over. Even Northwestern University hospital plays as nice with the urban fabric as any such facility is likely to.
Because land in downtown Chicago is so valuable, it isn’t feasible to acquire a large superblock site. And what land you do have, you need to use efficiently. This has led to a situation where the vast majority of the colleges are integrated with their environment and don’t stand apart from it. That’s a rarity.
This has lots of benefits. For example, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago built a dormitory at Randolph and State. The ground floor houses a Borders Books that is always jammed. The students themselves are frequently hanging out on State St., contributing to the street activity at all hours, and also counteracting the stuffy, sterile business/conventioneer vibe that infects too many downtowns. People see these young artsy types out there and think, “Hey, this place must be pretty cool.”
3. Neighborhood Compatibility. The rarefied intellectual atmosphere of a university often does not speak to or address the concerns of interests of the residents and non-university related businesses in a given area. Things like art galleries can have a limited appeal to those who are more concerned with quality of primary and secondary schools, jobs, crime, traffic, etc.
But the Loop is an upscale business district. This has the advantage that the people who work in the Loop, or who live in the greater central area, are the profile of people who might take advantage of programs and institutions that colleges create for their own students. I think of the Film Center at SAIC, for example, indisputably the city’s premier film venue. What the colleges produce is an amenity and potentially of interest to a far larger percentage of the non-university people in the area than is typically the case.
4. The Practical Arts. Several of the institutions are either arts related, or provide career training in technical fields. I noted Harrington College earlier, but there are many other similar types of schools. Most of these cater to people who already live in Chicago, thus they provide a critical workforce development function for the creative industries in the city. Without these schools, the city’s theaters, design firms, restaurants, etc. would find themselves facing a very different labor force situation.
5. Planting the Flag. The growing prominence of Chicago’s Loop as an educational and cultural center has created a pull whereby it is almost mandatory for area institutions to maintain a point of presence downtown. So DePaul, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, etc. all have facilities in the Loop. This creates connectivity between those institutions and downtown, which is a good thing.
A diversity of institutions, catering to a diverse student body, predominantly small to medium in size, scattered throughout an area, in urban buildings that are part of, not apart from, their surroundings, hopefully featuring a healthy dose of creative and technical fields, and which create open to the public type amenities – that’s the way to do an urban university district right. That’s not to say you can’t have a large medical campus or university campus. There’s a role for those things. But especially in a CBD or near-CBD type district, the Chicago approach to higher education has much to recommend as a development strategy. It’s a model that should be more thoroughly documented and discussed in urbanist downtown development circles.