The college campus to New Urbanist pipeline
American college campuses play a major role in young people coming to understand the importance of walkability and bikeability in their communities. For many, living on a college campus is the first time they truly live somewhere with adequate and safe pedestrian infrastructure with services available within a walkable distance. This appreciation for walkable college campuses can be fostered and turned into a lifelong interest in New Urbanism.
While commuter schools and some areas are just too big or spread out to be considered walkable or bikeable, many college campuses are designed to cater to students as pedestrians and bikers and not as drivers. This is a vast departure for how much of the built environment is approached in the wider United States where the emphasis is on moving cars as quickly as possible, often at the expense of vital pedestrian infrastructure like sidewalks and green space.
From big state schools with huge college greens and shuttle services to take students from one end of campus to another, to small liberal arts colleges where the whole campus can fit into the equivalent of a few city blocks, the walkability of these spaces helps to inspire the new generation of New Urbanists. In a lot of ways, these spaces act like the 15-minute neighborhood.
The 15-minute neighborhood is defined as a neighborhood where people can access their basic needs (parks, food, etc.) within 15 minutes of walking or biking. These benefits don’t need to end with graduation.
Says Rachel Quednau in The Wonderful Walkability of College Campuses, “In college, the action—whether a campus job, the library, the cafeteria or all your best friends—was within a 10-minute walk of your house. Why can't we continue living like that after we graduate?”
It is clear that part of the appeal of the college campus is the space devoted to people rather than cars. College recruitment brochures choose to show students interacting with public spaces such as quads, student centers, and academic buildings—and not parking lots—because the draw of a school is the spaces for people and not the spaces for cars.
However, the role of work is slightly different when it comes to the college campus. The job of the student is to learn and students on a college campus are all going to the same place for “work.” In the outside world, jobs are spread far and wide and can challenge the ability of students post-graduation to find an area that fits the desire for walkability and the 15-minute neighborhood.
Students see New Urbanist principles in action every day when they walk from class to class and have collective access to services like food and health services all within a manageable distance. Part of what makes the college experience so great is being surrounded by peers and getting the chance to interact with a campus designed around fostering connections and not driving.
The continued trend of young people moving to urban areas after graduation also illustrates that, for many, once they experience the benefits of a walkable and bikeable place, they don’t want to go back to relying on a car to access their communities. They are flocking to the many places outside college campuses that meet the goals of the 15-minute neighborhood, mostly older cities and towns.
More can be done to help foster this appreciation for walkable college campuses into a lifelong interest in New Urbanism. The focus now is mainly on students whose majors and career plans directly align with urbanism, such as planning or architecture—but any student that appreciates the walkability of their college campus is inherently an urbanist.
There are certain differences between college life and the outside world such as the location of “work,” but college is the first time that many young people get a taste of life in a human-scale, walkable place. Working with student governments, college organizations with sustainability missions, and residential life organizations (to name a few) can help reach more students who enjoy the walkability and bikeability of their communities and who can, in turn, help their communities both during and after college to embrace New Urbanist principles.