Back To School: An Overlooked Engine Powering Urban Rebirth

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Social scientists have collectively raised their eyebrows and clicked their heels as the latest super-trend of social patterns is taking America by storm.  A once expanding event-horizon away from our forgotten urban centers is in the first stages of reversal as a new generation of young people is increasingly choosing an urban lifestyle over their suburban roots.  Subjects like “walkability” and “cycling infrastructure” have made their way into the urban conversation across the country, and mass transit is once again in the forefront of city planning.  Fewer and fewer young people are attaining driver licenses and buying automobiles, and many of these young people are choosing living closer to their place of work.

Theories abound with regard to this ever-growing culture of change, and there is likely a colorful tapestry of reasons for why young people are increasingly choosing urban living again.  Student loans and early debt is likely a key factor, causing young people to seek environments where automobiles are not a necessity.  Additionally, young people today grew up with a multitude of TV examples, glorifying city life (Sex In The City, Seinfeld, etc.), creating a sort of urban allure.  Or, one of my favorite theories is one postulated by former New York City Traffic Commissioner, Samuel Schwartz.  In his his book Street Smart, Schwartz talks about the fact that people in their 20s today were driven more than any other generation, and they were driven in the most traffic congested era in human history.  From this, Schwartz questions whether the freedom of driving a car has been replaced by the perception that the car is where frustration occurs.  This is what I like to call “The Backseat Generation” of twenty-something’s who have been soured to driving by parents who drove them around on increasingly congested and frustrating roadways.  The resulting perception may be that a larger number of young adults grew up seeing cars as a burden and a place of conflict rather than the aforementioned engine of personal freedom.

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A skyscraper of other possible reasons for our urban resurgence has been debated, but there’s one in particular that I’ve scarcely heard anyone mention, yet it makes such incredible sense.  Not only is it a possible explanation, it may help us decide how to design our city structure by identifying the model environment for our growing downtown populations.

It’s the College Campus.

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Think about it… nearly 70% of high school grads will attend college today (Bureau of Labor Statistics), a number that has generally been on the rise for decades.  As this number has increased, more young Americans are being exposed to the college environment, and colleges have answered by adding to the experience with tremendous architectural and spacial investments.

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First and foremost, four-year colleges have always provided one of the most walkable experiences anywhere.  Furthermore, many colleges disallow cars for a student’s first and often second years, forcing them to make their way around campus on foot, by bike or other means.  And with student housing, classes, cafeterias (as well as local and chain eateries that have started to make their way on to campuses), gyms, sporting complexes, social events, arts and cultural centers, libraries and bookstores all within walking distance, more students are learning earlier that you can create a car-free environment that is fully manageable on foot.

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Need to get off campus?  Most larger schools offer their own bus systems, exposing students, often for the first time, to sustainable mass transit.  This has the potential to remove the stigma, and allows students to understand that not having a car doesn’t mean your local travel options are entirely limited.

And that’s not all… college designers are simply the best at creating attractive “spaces and places” on campuses where students can meet with friends, classmates or just sit and do homework.  These spaces also excel at generating meetings between friends and strangers alike.

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Campuses tend to blend new and old, mixing classsic architecture with modern design.  They are beautiful places at their best… organic and open, masking the high density with just the right touch of creative thinking to maximize the student experience.

As more students spend more time in these walkable collegiate environments where a car is seldom utilized, it is only natural to expect the increased desire for these elements to carry over in their next stage of life.  More and more college grads are opting to collect in cities that place priorities on efficient design, walkability, good transit and attractive spaces.  Just like walking from the dorm to a class, then on to lunch and maybe a study group, today’s young professionals are hunting for urban environments where they can live, work and play without having to go far.  And if they do, they want more options than just a car.

If urban designers aren’t building their cities with college campus models in mind, they may very well be missing a key piece of the urban puzzle that will keep their bustling downtown centers popular and relevant for years to come.  Incorporating elements of college amenities into city design creates an environment that young professionals are suddenly comfortable and familiar with already, thus orchestrating a stronger relationship between the city and the new residents.

Remember walking to class and seeing five of your friends along the way?  Remember that first nice day of spring when everyone emptied out on to the grassy quad to study, have lunch, or meet with classmates?  How about knowing you could go anywhere in fifteen minutes, all without a car?  Perhaps you miss the feeling of togetherness, of pride and of a home away from home?  These are just some the things cities are incorporating into their fabric, giving young grads, and people of all ages who long for a close-knit style of living, a sense of continuity as they begin or continue their careers.

These are often the things we may or may not realize that we miss, now that we are years removed from college life.  But as time spent on these campuses becomes more and more of a constant, young professionals looking to enter the workforce will increasingly demand that these elements of college exist in the places they live.  Designers take note… it’s time to go Back To School.