Planning for Urban Universities and Colleges

More than half of all colleges and universities in the United States are located in urban centers and their immediate surroundings. Urban universities differ from their land grant or small-town counterparts in several significant ways. They are landlocked, surrounded by an urban fabric of existing neighborhoods, cultural centers, commercial shops and businesses. Property acquisition for university growth has to be a carefully choreographed negotiation among land owners, private developers, local municipal leaders and neighborhood groups. These acquisitions have often been opportunistic, resulting in a patchwork of land holdings that must rely on a robust campus transportation system to connect multiple separate locations. In response to scarce land area, urban universities by default must be dense and vertical (including more structured parking), which, along with higher land costs, drives up the cost of construction.

However, these challenges also bring opportunity. Urban universities can be more dense, more connected, more multi-dimensional, more vibrant. Urban and metropolitan colleges and universities can also embrace their communities more directly, contributing significant economic, social, and physical resources to their home cities. In addition to being major employers, they can provide health and legal resources to urban residents, work to improve the local school system, create local business incubators, and work with planning agencies and private developers to revitalize and redevelop campus edges.

The larger economic benefit provided by urban universities and increased access to education they provide are often overlooked. According to The Talent Dividend, a study by CEOs for Cities, increasing the four-year college attainment rate by one percent in 51 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas would increase the aggregate annual personal income by $124 billion. Current demographic trends are working in favor of urban colleges and universities, as well. According to a recent Nielsen survey, 62% of millennials polled said they would prefer to live in urban environments.

Urban universities can overcome their challenges and maximize their unique advantages by engaging in a campus master planning process that understands and embraces urbanism. SmithGroupJJR interviewed two of our recent clients, Arizona State University and Cleveland State University, to discuss the trends and opportunities they face as urban institutions. The resulting video highlights how the master planning process has helped them create a viable framework for future growth and success.