Durable Growth

College urbanism

Clocktower in Iowa State's Campus Town

Clocktower in Iowa State’s Campus Town

While traveling in the Midwest this past summer, my traveling companion and I took a day trip to Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State.

Sidenote: On the freeway between Des Moines and Ames, we noted an exit for “High Trestle”.  It sounded vaguely interesting, but not intriguing enough to take the offramp.  A few weeks after my return home, I learned that the High Trestle, which involves neon lighting and other decoration on a former railroad trestle, is one of the top ten public art projects in the U.S.  Oops.

Despite that oversight, Ames was worth the trip.  The campus sprawled more than I would have liked.  As a Cal grad, I remain partial to campuses that are compact and highly walkable.  But touring the campus and surrounding residential districts made for an enjoyable day.

Of particular interest to me were the first blocks of Welch Avenue immediately south of campus, an area known as Campus Town.

While walking through Campus Town, it struck me that college urbanism is a specific form of urbanism, one that is particularly pure and illustrative.

College urbanism is a highly functional, almost distilled, form of urbanism.  It’s a fundamentally walkable setting that serves its residents well, but has neither frills nor an upper end.  Most of the buildings are aging and held together with duct tape.  The retail focus is directed like a laser at the needs of students living for the first time away from the parental roof.  Plentiful alcohol, cheap food, places where one can sit and talk until after midnight, and perhaps a small grocery store pretty much cover it.

And the district adjoining a college urban core is usually dense multi-family dwellings, whether dorms, co-ops, fraternities, sororities, or apartments.  Owner-occupied real estate, whether condominiums or single-family homes, is rare and usually located further from the core.

Not every college exhibits college urbanism.  Colleges that are primarily commuter schools don’t, nor do schools that sprawl so far that campus shuttles are used, which undermines the need for walkable districts at the campus edges.  Colleges where many students own cars and aren’t dependent on walkable locations are another exception.

But where none of those exist, college urbanism can flourish.  On the Cal campus, Telegraph Avenue would seem to be an example of college urbanism known nationwide.  But most Cal students know that Telegraph has become a caricature of itself.  Durant Avenue is where the real students go for their retail and entertainment needs.

As a Cal engineering student, the Northside was more my natural habitat.  The first block of Euclid Avenue above campus was where I learned to appreciate Asian food, played liar’s dice every Friday evening, caught the occasional movie, and even did some grocery shopping.

And today, forty years later, Northside doesn’t look particularly different.  College urbanism can have remarkable staying power.  Gentrification is rare.  For one, people with more money usually don’t want to live surrounded by students.  Also, there is always a new generation of economically-strapped but eager-for-fun college students to sustain the existing businesses.

In some places, college urbanism is muted by interaction with the broader community.  The downtown core of Chico, immediately south of the Chico State campus, is an example.  Elements of college urbanism are intermingled with stores and restaurants that serve to the more mature members of the community.  It’s a more sedate form of college urbanism, but still attractive.  And the economic power of the students provides a base that stabilizes a downtown that might otherwise be at risk.

Welch Avenue in Campus Town

Welch Avenue in Campus Town

Davis offers a type of urbanism similar to that of Chico, where the UC Davis students and town people often mingle.  From my one visit to the proximity of the University of the Pacific campus in Stockton, the same balance seemed to exist there.  Another example is Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, where the retail and entertainment offerings are a full step above either Southside or Northside.  It’s where the parents of Cal students go for dinner when visiting Berkeley.

Looking back at Ames, Campus Town felt much like Northside in Berkeley.  Although there was a greater accommodation for cars, which detracted from the urbanism.

Also, Campus Town offers a good illustration of why college urbanism is usually composed of older buildings.  Trying to build new structures that meet the price points of college students can result in unfortunate architectural compromises, such as the Welch Crown Center.  It would have been better to have bought more rolls of duct tape.

Welch Crown Center

Welch Crown Center

I’m unsure where the summer of 2014 will take me, but I’ll be paying particular attention to the periphery of college campuses whenever I can.  I’ll likely see some solid but unadorned urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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