dead streets, vibrant campuses…

Having presented at ACUI on urban campus communities with Pascha “Way too cool” McTyson, urban campuses have been on my mind for many months.  Having put the final touches on and being halfway through with ACUI Region VIII’s T-Around this summer, the topic has been on my mind even more so.

Day one, 7/8, we hit MIT, Emerson, and UMass Boston as part of our Red Line Day experience.  Day two, 7/16, will feature green line schools, like Wentworth Institute of Technology, the Tree House at MassArt, Emmanuel, Simmons (all members of the very intriguing Colleges of the Fenway consortium), and ends at Berklee College of Music.

In between all of my #NoBoston2024 rampaging on twitter, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the conversation around Boston about our urban environment. Particularly, after this last winter exposed a lot of discrepancies in basic transit needs for our communities, and now, with summer in full swing, how outdoor spaces are being utilized as we live in this big city of neighborhoods of ours.

“If the Red Line stops, we all freeze and die.” -Direct quote from Good Will Snowpiercer

I’ve had links and thoughts found later in this post in my draft folder for months now… but it was this tweet from @transitmatters that got me back on my game.  We are currently hosting the filming of the Ghostbusters reboot in town, and apparently, this is a thing…

Not holding it against Kristen Wiig and Paul Feig, but I’m definitely holding this against Boston and Massachusetts officials who day after day, leg session after leg session, pass the buck on making the T and our infrastructure top notch.

I need someone to blame when the Red Line or just shit in general breaks in this city.

So, the original tweet that got me going:

Read that sentence (+some more) again from this article:

…a dead street, laneway or plaza is the perfect petri dish for civic experimentation. It’s an opportunity to challenge citizens and businesses to come up with ideas for bringing that space to life…

Let’s just look at some of the pieces of this that are complete student affairs/higher ed buzzwords-

  • ‘petri dish’= all my STEM student affairs peeps just perked up
  • ‘civic’= isn’t that, like, the thing… where the students vote or something? or die? we want our students to be well-rounded global citizens… but you can never forget the local.
  • ‘experimentation’= just replace this word with innovation… yeahhhh, there’s that tingly feeling you love.
  • ‘challenge’=why isn’t the word support in this sentence as well… should I like… go up there and just edit it in? I don’t know what to do.
  • “bringing that space to life”= campus center bruhs, how many meetings have you been in where you heard that exact, freaking, phrase? Exact. Phrase.

Buzzwords aside, that quote above from the article about urban placemaking in Adelaide has so much potential for those of us on urban campuses.  We all have those silent plazas, alleys, pathways, streets, forgotten on our campus, forgotten in the hustle and bustle around us and as the city continues to grow or shrink outside our campus boundaries.

If you need to get a sense of what placemaking is, this is a great article on it – although like most urban design concepts, everyone has their own ideas.  They nod to Jane Jacobs though, so I have to give them the thumbs up.  A basic idea of placemaking is this:

  • Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.
  • …the thinking behind Placemaking gained traction in the 1960s, when PPS mentors like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte introduced groundbreaking ideas about designing cities for people, not just cars and shopping centers. Their work focuses on the social and cultural importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces.

So, you can see, this ideal fits right in with the higher ed/student affairs/campus center/student union ethos, creating spaces on campus that reflect the values and culture of the people using it and travelling through it, and that makes those spaces inviting, inspiring, and important.

Who are our partners in this?

Local orgs, we gots lots of them in the city.  Museums, cultural organizations, playhouses, adult education centers.

Facilities and campus safety.  Do you really think facilities wants to stare at that boring brown wall in that alley anymore than the students who pass through it do?  Campus safety would be thrilled if spaces had more activity or ‘more eyes’ as Jane Jacobs put it.  Uninviting spaces and thoroughfares means less usage means more risk of a dangerous situation getting out of control because no one else is around.

Local governments. They may have money. They may have ideas. They may have a larger plan you can tap into. They may have more resources.  They want to deal with you on something other than the noise violation your concert created last week on campus.

Students. Faculty. Other staff. Duh.

As the Project for Public Spaces suggests, placemaking needs a lot of different perspectives involved to be successful, because you are looking at a place at large, not at specific pain points that can be addressed by one profession.

Placemaking with pinecones is a terrible idea, little Sonic Hedgehog guy.

You’ve got to be willing to make small steps too.  That is the one struggle I’ve always found on a campus, is that students want wholesale change now, if they still have that 4 year view rather than a legacy view.  We’ve got to help in navigating that, channeling that, and ensuring that little by little, bit by bit, these underused pathways or plazas on our campuses, where space is so critical, are transformed, making life and the physical experience better for each person that passes by.

What form does this take? I don’t know… performance spaces, artsy fartsy walls/alleys/pathways, democracy plazas, road usage on campus that prioritizes the pedestrian and the bike rather than the car (this is a huge problem at MIT).  Its up to you. I hope you share some of your ideas with me from your own cities or campuses.  I don’t know, put up some guerrilla signage:

Cars are boring, loud, and car-y. Patio seating and humans are better. Can you put more humans in places where cars are? If so, do it.


Put up some signage on campus; point students off campus into the city or make sure they walk rather than drive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go think about what we can do on our campus.

I hope I can continue to blog some more on topics of the the campus and the city, including posts with thoughts from books on transit like Straphanger, some thoughts from the ACUI Region VIII T-Around, etc.  There are some issues bugging me on MIT’s campus regarding pedestrian experiences, and while I have no idea what I’m talking about from an urban design standpoint, I hope I make some sort of sense.


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