Colleges and universities play a myriad of important roles in America’s major cities, metropolitan areas, and isolated college towns. They provide powerful economic assets, including research facilities and forums for academic and professional conferences. Moreover, major research universities, tend to pay their faculty members relatively generously, which increases their purchasing power. Aside from the obvious benefits of having thriving higher educational institutions, what can America’s colleges and universities offer cities with regard to sustainability and urban planning?
In Hampton Roads, Virginia, a number of local schools provide some answers to that question. Christopher Newport University (CNU) in Newport News, for example, has invested approximately $1 billion in capital construction improvements over the last decade, with construction on the main campus expected to be completed by 2015. The growth of CNU has spurred additional investments along Warwick Boulevard, the major thoroughfare that anchors the western half of the city, including dozens of new retail, residential, and commercial developments.
Christopher Newport University's Trible Library, a major building not only for the campus, but for the city. The Library hosts a range of community events, and defines “placemaking” in midtown Newport News, VA.
McMurran Hall, which houses the social sciences and humanities departments, anchors the western end of the school’s main academic quadrangle. It also hosts community and campus events, houses offices and several of the largest lecture halls on campus.
In terms of environmental sustainability and smart growth planning, however, CNU’s role is more difficult to assess. The university is located in a low-density suburban area where few residents walk or bike to work. Nevertheless, the city of Newport News’s prospective master plan for transit development could use CNU as a major anchor for a multi-decade effort to improve comprehensive planning. Over several decades, CNU will provide the end terminus for an extensive network of street-level rail, a better-integrated bus network, and the city’s first major transit-oriented developments.
Other schools in Hampton Roads have similarly embraced their roles as potential catalysts for urban development. Tidewater Community College in downtown Norfolk features a new, modern student center at the heart of a dispersed urban campus, providing a beautiful streetscape connecting Granby Street to Monticello Avenue and the MacArthur Center Mall. Old Dominion University, a large research institution also in Norfolk, prominently figures in the city’s ambitious (and controversial) plans to redevelop the Hampton Boulevard corridor.
What are the opportunities provided by and the challenges facing colleges and universities generally, with respect to urban development? How can we maximize their potential for placemaking, redevelopment, and sustainability, without the social costs of displacing communities or accelerating gentrification?
Credits: Images by Andy Carr. Data linked to sources.