Monday, August 7, 2006
The design of our universities can mirror the land use policies of our larger community, giving us hints of how land use affects society. I recently had the chance to visit two of the newest large state universities of the East -- the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Both began classes in their current university form only in 1968. But the contrast in university land use couldn't be any starker. UCF was built as a typical American state university -- on a largely virgin tract of land, removed and isolated from the existing city, with a low-density layout, lots of "green space" between buildings, and surrounded by enormous parking lots that act as oceans between the university and the outside world. Despite a well-thought-out circular plan, UCF remains, in my view, as insolated outpost of academia, from which it is very difficult for a student or professor to travel anyplace else (including the city of Orlando) without a motor vehicle. UCF is near Orlando, but in no way is it part of Orlando.
VCU, on the other hand, has grown inside the city, directly adjacent to downtown Richmond, with many of the university's buildings in the city's remarkable Fan district, one of the nation's most charming pre-auto single-family-home neighborhoods. Naturally constrained by the city and its street grid, VCU has grown in large part by occupying the closely clustered city mansions that were once the homes of Richmond's aristocracy. This practice has had many welcome results. The university's use of old houses, and the fact that many students rent the attractive, columned old two- and three-story small apartment houses in the Fan, have preserved many of Richmond's finest old buildings and cityscapes from demolition and conversion to offices or parking lots (which are largely hidden as garages on the VCU campus). Currently, VCU is expanding to nearby Broad Street, once Richmond's great retail street, that has been sorely in need of revitalization. Just as significantly, the integration of a major university within the established city gives Richmond a vigorous, hip, youth-oriented feel as great as any city in the nation.