U plays role in combating urban sprawl

Joe Carlson

A line of cars puffing clouds of exhaust and steam wait on a wide University street in morning rush-hour traffic, momentarily paused on their way to the flat asphalt parking lots that dot the fringes of campus.
Side effects of urban sprawl such as this are visible daily on the roads and parking lots of the University. But the effects of sprawl are not limited to traffic concerns. Sprawling growth threatens to increase the cost of education while simultaneously decreasing the University’s overall accessibility.
As a large, urban land-grant institution, the University has a vested interest in addressing the issue of urban sprawl. The University also has the ability to set an example of urban community life for students and to exemplify efficient land and resource use essential to curbing sprawl.
In effect, the University can play three roles in resolving sprawl: as a community, an educator and a researcher.
To many, the strengthening of the campus community is central in teaching students how to live in denser, more efficient housing than the suburban tracts many students grew up in.
“The students are at the center of something here, and they are the future leaders,” said Bill Morrish, the director of Urban Design at the Design Center for American Urban Landscape.
The creation of a cohesive campus community is expected to require additional on-campus housing, as well as greater collaboration with the off-campus community. Additional retail space will also be necessary to accommodate the material demands of an increased campus population.
Many of these ideas are already a part of the guidelines in the University Master Development Plan.
“The Master Plan is very much attuned to the issue of building community support,” said Clinton Hewitt, associate vice president for University Master Planning.
The plan is a vision of the University campuses in the future, and presents general principles and values for campus development. The plan was approved in September by the Board of Regents. It is not an actual plan of specific steps to be taken, but a long-term model to guide decision-making over the next several decades.
While some have seen this lack of concrete planning as a weakness in the Master Plan, Hewitt explains that its flexibility is actually a benefit.
“Where it’s successful is where it’s dynamic,” Hewitt said.
Although the plan was not designed with issues of urban sprawl in mind, it addresses sprawl directly. One of the major changes that the plan calls for is the construction of new student housing on the South Mall, behind Coffman Memorial Union.
But simply bringing more students on campus will not create a stronger, lasting community. Once students live on campus, they must have a reason to stay in the community.
The plan calls for an enhancement of the retail services in Coffman Memorial Union, as well as new services inside the new dorms.
The plan calls for avoiding the duplication of services that has tended to draw business from the local community. “We need to be careful that we’re not in competition with the businesses around campus. We need to find what is missing from the mix, and provide that,” said Dan Peterson, a planner in the Master Planning Office.
Another way to strengthen the University community, which was not described in the Master Plan, was an increase in off-campus housing, especially for faculty and staff.
“There are faculty who, if they had the opportunity to move closer to campus, would choose to do so,” said John Adams, a geography professor.
Hewitt said that approximately 20 percent of University faculty, students and staff live within one mile of campus, and 40 percent live within five miles.
Ohio State University in Columbus has had similar experiences with campus community issues.
About 40 percent of Ohio State’s students, staff and faculty live near campus. Like their University counterparts, Ohio State administrators want to boost the school’s community by carefully planning campus development.
The difference is that Ohio is a bit further along in the improvement process.
A group called Campus Partners was formed in January 1995 to create a revitalization plan for the campus community. The plan was published in a final form in July 1996.
“We’re in a transition stage now, moving from planning to implementation,” Campus Partners staff member Steve Sterrett said.
So far, the group has taken a number of different actions aimed at improving the link between the Ohio State University and the surrounding community. For example, one program has been created in which medical students are trained with patients in the campus community, rather than just from textbooks.
Ohio State medical students “can’t simply be trained in the classroom, they need to go out into the community where they are going to be working,” Sterrett said. Other projects include the revival of socially important landmarks, the installation of more street lighting and regular street cleaning.
Currently, several University of Minnesota groups perform some of the same functions, but no single entity is charged with their overall organization.
The other major role the University can play in addressing sprawl is as a host to research and education.
“The University should do as much as it can to provide a forum for understanding issues of living in an urban community,” Hewitt said.
Currently, the University has several departments that deal with student education in urban sprawl issues, including departments in the College of Human Ecology, the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the College of Liberal Arts and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
In fact, an organization called the Planning and Design Affinity Group was formed to create more collaboration between these similar but separate departments.
Besides education, the University has the capacity to conduct research on the issue of sprawl and host forums within the University community to educate students and residents.
One such meeting is the Forum on the First Ring, which will take place on Dec. 11 and 12 in the Earle Brown Center. It will deal with issues facing the first ring of suburbs in the Twin Cities, which are now experiencing many of the same problems as the central cities.