Monday, March 2, 2009
I spent last Friday on a typical American public university campus: the University of Florida in Gainesville. As I wandered around the enormous acreage –- in Europe it would be considered a middling sized country –- I pondered how our big college campuses reflect our American land use preferences. Unlike European universities, which are often dropped into dense cities like businesses, big American universities typically are isolated and landscaped, like suburban planned developments. The residences at the UF are relatively low density (there are few high-rises at Gainesville) and are nestled (or is the word “sprawled”?) in an idyllic campus of lawns, gardens (the dogwoods and azaleas were out in north Florida in late February), woods, and wetlands. It seemed like an ideal planned suburban community –- or perhaps a retirement resort, considering all of the entertainment and recreational options enjoyed by today’s student. And the new urbanist notion of “multiple use” appears to have no meaning on the campus: I lost track of the number of impressive stadiums –- not fields, but actual stadiums –- specially dedicated for every conceivable sport. (Why argue with success? UF boosters might respond, citing their frequent athletic championships).
But suburban paradise comes with a cost, we know. To shuttle its 50,000 students around the small country, the university runs a fleet of buses the size of which one could invade Russia with; unlike at my state university way back when, UF students appear actually to ride the buses. And, in a novelty to me, hundreds (thousands?) of Florida students ride scooters across the campus. In this way, they do resemble European college kids, except that in Rome or Berlin a student rides her scooter from one end of the city to the urban university, while in Gainesville it is simply to get from one end of campus to the other –- for example, from the pleasant “exurban” new dorms beyond the sports stadiums to the humanities classrooms in the 1920s collegiate Gothic “downtown.”
These observations raise an intriguing question. Do our university campuses resemble planned suburbs because the architects draw from suburban experiences? Or do our suburbs copy the green and pleasant college campuses that form some of the fondest memories of our designers, architects, and suburban homeowners? Or, most likely, do both reflect a commonly shared land use ideal that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche?
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