The University Campus – Is It Obsolete?

By Leonard Rodrigues©

A former University Architect and now visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota called me the other day. He wanted an opinion or two on a few issues he was intending to challenge his class related to the entire idea of a University Campus. Aside from discussing the history of such places, he asks how they work and what might make one campus better than another. It was a great discussion, but we found ourselves touching upon a recurring question that we have both heard asked many times recently about the very existence of the College and University Campus – that is: are they a dying breed – fading away in favor of distance learning and the electronic communication revolution.

We discussed this at some length, and I felt emboldened by recent research work I have become involved with to suggest not only will there be the continued existence of the University and College Campus [proverbially: rumors of my death are somewhat premature], but the campus will flourish in the years ahead. Quite predictably, my colleague wanted that statement argued a bit further. That was not a problem, I suggested, but we will have to take a temporary step away from the campus and into the place where most campuses are located: the city.

Cities – The continued existence of the campus is embedded in the existence and behavior of cities ‐ this being their most common location. This relationship is not the “town and gown” discussion that has been quite popular in recent years, but is more rooted in an emerging understanding of some fundamental principles of complex and adaptive systems. In fact, it goes to the root of what is often said and written about cities from Jane Jacobs to Ken Greenberg.

Planners and architects have long argued that design matters; that the actual shape of things is relevant to the lives of people. From Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” to the arguments for a return to dense neighborhoods and mixed complex uses in Ken Greenberg’s “Walking Home”, we have argued about the form of the city, judged one arrangement against another and tried to effect changes through physical intervention. Some architects have gone further and argued that their work – whether in single buildings or groups of buildings ‐ can transform peoples’ lives in fundamental ways by the very fact of a “transformational vision” of how we should live and their synthesis in form to achieve this.

A sober look at outcomes suggests the actual track record of this approach is very poor. From the new town movement in post war Britain to the “designed” cities of Chandigarh, Brasilia, Canberra, or the neo-traditional approaches to planning new suburbs, the outcomes rarely if ever measure up to the claims. The truth of the matter is that we lack a theoretical framework that would yield a predictive and perhaps even a quantifiable model of the exact connection between space, its form, and human behavior. This theoretical deficit has been skirted in some circles with the argument that the form we see in much of modern architecture – especially in large-scale projects ‐ is an interpretation of our modern culture and it is the profession’s proper place to make that interpretation. Certainly an elite view, but does it enlighten the resulting action in any way that can be consistently applied and the expected results assured? Again, the track record is not particularly compelling.

Urban planning and architectural theory have been and continues to be a play of observation and conjecture. We increasingly hear the term “evidence based design” – which suggests that the design is rooted in observable outcomes that have been researched and that the research supports the conclusions upon which the design itself is based. I feel this is an encouraging approach because it has more in common with science than art and can perhaps help us more correctly predict the nature of the system and its outcomes.

The City – A Complex System – Over the last decade, there has been interesting research that has begun a focus on the city as a complex, adaptive system. Much of the work related to this has been done by the research team headed by Dr. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute and his colleague Dr. Luis Bettencourt. They and their colleagues examined the application of analytical techniques used in their own field – high-energy physics – to study complex and adaptive systems. Most would agree that the city is an extremely complex phenomenon. How then can some of these analytical techniques shed light on the behavior of this system in a manner that could inform understanding and in so doing, give planning itself a predictive and quantifiable framework?

The analysis that Drs. Bettencourt and West conducted and have written and presented in a number of publications and speaking events over the last few years illustrated that cities have predictable and measurable characteristics. One such behavior is scalability – that is, to what extent does one variable change with a change in size. For cities, this would be population size. For measures of infrastructure, for example, the data the Santa Fe Institute’s team examined consistently demonstrated scaling behavior with a scaling exponent of .85. You can understand this outcome this way: were you to double the population of a city, you only need to build 85% of its physical infrastructure.

Economies of Scale – When one thinks about this, it makes sense that there might be economies of scale as the population of a region increases in size. What is less obvious and far more dramatic are findings with respect to the productive output of cities – say, the number of patents taken out in a metropolitan region. When these measures of output are examined, they too scale with population size, but they do so in a “super‐linear” fashion. The data sets examined suggest returns to scale in the order of between 15 and 20 percent. Taken together, these data essentially state that larger cities are not only more efficient; they have increasing productive output in terms of wealth creation, creativity and innovation. This is extraordinarily important information particularly when the data suggests that these characteristics are independent of both geography and culture.

The essential truth is that the scaling behavior we observe in the data sets of over 360 metropolitan regions suggests – what the sub‐linear and super‐linear mathematics predicts with startling accuracy ‐ is our own behavior in complex networks and that the behavior has measureable characteristics – properties of the network itself. What might give us pause at this point is that our planners and architects have the equation reversed. This research suggests the city is a manifestation of our networking behavior. To change the city in fundamental ways would imply that we first influence the trends and tendencies of the network behavior and that the form will inevitably follow. It is ‐ it would seem ‐ that at least at the macro‐level, the level of concern that predicts ‐ say, the average life span of a human being ‐ it is quite possible to have a quantifiable and predictive model of the City – one that can inform decision‐making and ultimately form making – a Science of City Planning.

So let us return to the essential question it poses for the University Campus: Is the Campus Obsolete?

The information this research has uncovered answers that question with a probabilistic but emphatic NO – at least not everywhere. Universities and colleges are part of most cities and themselves have a worldwide network structure across political and geographic boundaries. They are part of multiple nodal points within the network structure of many cities. This will not be true of all campuses everywhere. There will be winners and there will be losers. Our research is looking into the issue of scaling in cities and how the university plays into that structure, but the data is incomplete and no inferences can yet be made on the predictive capacity of the scaling relationship model to the growth or decline of the campus that is a part of the city.

I do believe the campus will prove out to be among the most powerful “condensation nuclei” – around which vital complex networks are created, changed, expanded and contracted and from which – ultimately – our best innovations and creative solutions to the pressing problems of the world bubble to the surface. They may well be – simply put – our collective future.

Vancouver, BC November 2013

Leonard Rodrigues is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has practiced architecture throughout western Canada and from 2003 to 2008, he was University Architect at the University Alberta in Edmonton. Now based in Vancouver, he is completing a doctorate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.