Spotlight On Maintaining Town/Gown Relationships

When campus expansions and major building projects are underway, it is vital that the town/gown relationship be enhanced though community engagement strategies in advance and continuing through design, planning, and construction phases.

When campus expansions and major building projects are underway, it is vital that the town/gown relationship be enhanced though community engagement strategies in advance and continuing through design, planning, and construction phases. College Planning & Management recently spoke with architect and campus planner John Kirk, AIA, a partner at Cooper Robertson in New York, who is currently working with campus leaders to foster better community relations at Longwood University in Virginia and Drury University in Missouri, among others where his firm is spearheading comprehensive master planning work to get his perspective on enhancing town/gown relationships.

Q. How important are the relationships between today’s colleges/universities and their surrounding communities?
A. The relationship between today’s colleges and universities and their surrounding communities is of paramount importance. Colleges and universities are not silos or “islands,” they are communities within a community. While some of the most memorable campuses have what I call strong “psychological thresholds”—where the edges of the campuses are well defined by landscape, hardscape, and architecture—there is always spill over and overlaps; the town encroaches on the campus and the campus, the town. Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia do a fabulous job creating a campus fabric as connective tissue and thereby defining place.

That said, both campuses are very much a part of the cities they inhabit. The converse is also true: college communities are incredibly important to the vibrancy and economic welfare of their surrounding communities. Charlottesville, VA, and Princeton, NJ, would not exist were it not for the University of Virginia and Princeton University, respectively.

A primary driver for our master plan for Longwood University in Farmville, VA, was to find ways that the university could be an economic engine for the town of Farmville—so the plan proposes to relocate the University Bookstore to the downtown area, as well as Longwood’s baseball and softball stadia. The bookstore is already relocated and the university is working on plans for both ballparks. At Drury University in Springfield, MO, our master planning work was ever conscious of Drury’s important relationship to the Midtown neighborhood to the north (where a meaningful number of Drury faculty, staff, and students live) and that the university campus is a potentially strong bridge between two emerging commercial districts—the Commercial Street area to its north and Walnut Street, downtown, to the south.

Q. What strategies can campus leaders employ to engage the community in advance of and during major planning or building projects?
A. Engaging the community is key, and engagement is all about communication—which begins with good listening. We begin every master planning effort with a series of “listening tours” where we interview university leadership, faculty, staff, students, and also community and business leaders—giving them a genuine voice in the process. Themes tend to emerge from these listening tours, which we memorialize into a set of “Guiding Principles” for the project; aspirations or challenges to overcome on which everyone can agree. All options and ideas are vetted against the Guiding Principles. After the initial listening tours, it is essential to make timely, periodic presentations of the progress of the work to the community at-large (town and gown), and receive feedback. If all of this is done genuinely well, the likelihood of coming out the back end of a master planning effort with a plan that is almost universally embraced and endorsed increases exponentially.

Q. Can you offer examples of how these considerations shape a successful framework plan or master plan?
A. Our master plan for Longwood University, referenced above, is a good example. Longwood has fabulous leadership in president W. Taylor Reveley IV, Ken Copeland, and Louise Waller, among a host of others, and they have taken our master plan and turned it into their playbook; what they have implemented thus far is staggeringly impressive. The master planning process, beginning with the president’s office, can be credited with transforming what had been, historically, a tenuous relationship between the town and the university, into a happy marriage; a trusting partnership where it is commonly understood that what is good for the town is good for the university, and vice versa.

In all of our work we seek to make connections to the larger whole, to the context—from Yale in New Haven to Cal Tech in Pasadena; and from Harvard in Boston to the University of Miami in Coral Gables.