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The Urban Fantasy of American Universities

College campuses are a sort of fairytale urbanism, but they can also be a template for building neighborhoods people love.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JANUARY 27: Students play football at the Quad, on the campus of Harvard University on January 27, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Boston, and much of the Northeast, is being hit with heavy snow from Winter Storm Juno. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

College is not real life, the saying goes. By design, the traditional four-year college experience is an escape from the trappings of everyday life that allows young men and women to immerse themselves in academic pursuits. Aside from the parties, meal plans, and lack of responsibilities, colleges also present a vanishingly rare experience in modern America: life in a classically urban environment. And just like America’s most desirable urban neighborhoods, the cost of living on a college campus is a privilege that few Americans can really afford. 

In an essay for The Atlantic on how American colleges bungled their response to COVID-19 this fall, Ian Bogost captures the inescapable allure of the college experience, which can’t be replicated over Zoom. Bogost writes that students were drawn back to campuses for the fraternity parties and football games instead of academic rigor. But it’s the privilege of living within “the facsimile of a medieval monastery” that provides a setting for these formative years and gives college its enduring appeal. 

Like their medieval ancestors, the first universities in America were designed as cloistered academic communities; they are simultaneously set within an urban fabric and removed from everyday city life. Academic and residential buildings at old American schools like Harvard University and the University of Virginia are centered around a “quadrangle” or “court” in a manner reminiscent of the colleges within Oxford and Cambridge University in England. American colleges have largely kept to these basic design elements, even as cities have disintegrated around them. 

Life on a traditional campus remains quintessentially urban, and young adults are instinctively drawn to it. Close-knit life in dorms and fraternity houses, set within walking distance of a wide variety of cultural amenities and dining options, compose a physical environment conducive to spontaneous social interactions. Daily encounters with friends in “third places” while going about work and play are a hallmark of a human-scaled environment. Shared spaces are largely missing in most American cities, where auto-centric development has carved up plazas in favor of freeways and parking lots. 

If universities decided to model themselves after a “driving city,” with only standalone units of housing sprawling for miles outside a central cluster of academic buildings, the common spaces that are so essential to fostering community on the campus would disappear. The simple joy of walking to class with friends would become impractical, students and professors would rarely interact outside of a classroom setting, and every student would become a commuter. Few students would pay extra thousands of dollars in room and board fees to live in such a place. 

The human-scaled nature of most campuses allows for people to live in proximity to the institutions that are essential to human flourishing. The outside world is less hospitable. Zoning of land for different purposes has placed the church, the classroom, the library, and the town square (if the town square even exists) far away from the places we inhabit. Neighborhoods where residents have easy access to these essentials only exist in a handful of older cities that are financially out of reach for most families, or have otherwise experienced deep disinvestment.

When I graduated from my small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and moved into a historic neighborhood in Washington, D.C., there was something instantly intelligible about my new surroundings. Even though I had never lived in a town larger than 10,000 residents, the rhythms of life in a major American city came naturally to me. With my friends, church, work, and dining options all located within walking or biking distance of my home, my lifestyle didn’t change much after getting a diploma. 

College-educated adults who have had a taste of an urban lifestyle are more than twice as likely to move into urban neighborhoods near the center of major metropolitan areas. Economic growth has been concentrated in these areas over the last decade, which has made dense, amenity-rich neighborhoods more unaffordable and exclusive. A bachelor’s degree is a stepping stone toward the level of salaries typical of these areas, but attending college for four years is becoming increasingly unaffordable for even middle-class families. 

These same families are getting priced out of the cities they live in, as housing shortages drive up real estate values. Lower-income residents have their housing subsidized by the government, and “Yuppies” with Ivy League degrees occupy the new mid-rise apartment buildings downtown, and middle class families retreat to the exurbs. The well-documented lack of “missing middle housing” and traditional neighborhoods in cities across the country disproportionately harms the American working class, barring them from living in the kind of environments that best suit their needs.

And yet late Victorian-era neighborhoods in cities like New York and Boston that are now primarily enclaves for the rich were originally built for working class families in the late 19th century. As Theo Mackey Pollack wrote previously for New Urbs, today’s New Urbanists revere these places for their enduring beauty and dynamism. These places “left a durable imprint on American urbanism before comprehensive zoning regulations began. By identifying the factors that shaped development in the heyday of modern urbanism, we may begin to uncover how they interacted to build neighborhoods that people continue to love.”

Some universities have started taking an active role in building urban spaces in their host towns, benefitting both students and the local community. While students at Notre Dame may love living in a townhouse near campus for their senior year, they’re unlikely to settle in South Bend, Indiana long-term.

Leisurely walks home after work, casual encounters with friends in the courtyard, and views filled with inspiring architecture don’t have to only be memories of the “good ol’ days” of undergrad, or luxuries afforded only to the wealthy and successful. The neighborliness and convenience that so many people, both young and old, desire for their everyday life is possible, if we set our minds on building the kinds of places we admire.

Josh Delk is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He is a proud graduate of Grove City College and avid bicyclist. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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