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Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009 06:08 am

UIS, the educational city

The original vision for the campus

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Will “incremental metropolitanism” help UIS to build a better town?
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE


I complained here recently that the University of Illinois at Springfield’s recently adopted master plan will make the future UIS campus the kind of sprawly, inchoate, inefficient place that alert urban planners everywhere are abandoning. (“Stuck in the ’70s.” Sept. 3). How backward-looking, I wrote.

In fact, this vision of the future UIS is not quite backward enough. Since the campus was not built in the city but planted in a cornfield, the original 1970s campus master plan sought to put some city into the campus. That document called for an “urban campus in a rural setting,” in which all campus facilities were to be made easily accessible by foot in a car-free core. That core would house not only classrooms and offices but “shops, restaurants, lounge facilities and landscaped areas,” creating an “educational city.”

The model was the same faux urbanism that informed enclosed shopping malls of the era, such as White Oaks, which also is a car-free zone surrounded by parking lots. More interestingly, the original master plan suggested planting the seeds of a real town out there. “In collaboration with far-seeing real estate developers,” it stated, “the university will help develop a planned, attractive community environment adjacent to the campus.”

What the students got instead of an educational city was a specialized office park. When the school changed hands (in 1995), the new owners decided to re-brand it as a conventional state university, complete with a quad, murky athletic scandals and full-time students living on campus. After years of trying, UIS still had only a few more than 1,000 residential students at start of the 2009-10 school year.

Campus life in a rural setting has proved a hard sell, and not only because the munching of corn borers distracts students from their studies. These days college students crave a more urban experience. (Chicago’s South Loop today is today considered perhaps the largest “college town” in the country, with some 50,000 students living and/or studying there.) One of the goals of the UIS strategic plan (of which the current campus development plan is a part) is to create “more internal and external gathering spaces” (sometimes called “third spaces”) of the sort of that any city street provides.

But how to get there? That question faces a lot of 1970s places that were built to suburban densities and must now adapt themselves to stay socially and economically viable. A well-regarded new book — Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Durham-Jones and June Williamson (John Wiley and Sons) — describes the results as “incremental metropolitanism.” It consists of connecting and filling in to increase the density of both people and uses on the same acreage, making better use of infrastructure and energy and creating environments congenial to walking and socializing, all of which aggregates demand sufficiently to support convenience retail and restaurants.

Plainly, student demand alone is not sufficient to make such businesses pay. Other small colleges in essentially rural settings are partnering with private developers to build housing complexes of mixed types available to civilians. Their fitness centers double as fee-supported health clubs for the locals, while the ground floors are crowded with shops, restaurants and offices — in short real social life with real people.

UIS owns lots of land available for development adjacent to its campus. Reportedly there have been informal discussions with the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission about developing 400-500 units of apartments, townhouses, duplexes and single-family houses for active seniors on about 62 acres of university land on the east edge of the campus along West Lakeshore Drive.

Those conversations should have happened 30 years ago. The university would have been wiser then to commit to the long-term development, not only of its campus, but of the neighborhood around it. In the absence of that commitment, the development of most of the land south and east of I-55 was left to private developers. They responded with the usual scattershot projects — a subdivision here, a motel there, a strip mall in between. Those same projects, had they been concentrated as part of the campus, would have created a new small town.

Perhaps it is not too late for the application of a little incremental wisdom. The challenge is to begin to build a town around the school while rebuilding the school so it functions more like a town, in which shopping and dining and recreation and socializing are mixed, in a complex shared environment comprising real streets lined with buildings on the sidewalk with retail on the ground floor and offices (or classrooms) and apartments above, as they are in a real town. The quad, now a sterile space, could function like a small-town square whose major employer happens to be a university.

Universities everywhere tend to think in terms of institution-building rather than town-building, but town-building is what they do. The only issue is whether they build good towns or bad ones.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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