Over the last several days I’ve been asked a few times what I think of BYU’s new “Campus Unification Plan.” According to my former colleague Genelle Pugmire the plan is a “three-phase redesign of the north and east sides of campus that will eventually include closing Campus Drive and turning the area into a walking plaza for students.” An article on KSL and a post on the mayor’s blog further explain the project.
This is what the completed project will look like:
I’m going to criticize this project below, but before that I think it’s worth mentioning the positive things. And there are a bunch of them:
1. BYU evidently met with neighborhood and city leaders about this plan. I’ve accused BYU of being a bad neighbor in the past, but it’s apparently starting to integrate into the community. That’s a significant positive development for which BYU deserves to be praised.
2. BYU is apparently doing both bike and car sharing programs. I don’t know much about them, but if true that’s commendable.
3. This project “will also help UTA with infrastructure for the future Bus Rapid Transit system.”
4. It’s also worth mentioning that any time car infrastructure is replaced with pedestrian space we’re probably moving in the right direction. Though I have some complaints about the project and BYU’s priorities, they are trying, which is good. In the end, while this project isn’t perfect, it’s also not a crap alert either.
Now on to the criticism.
First, let’s talk about “green space,” which BYU has stated it hopes to increase with this project. Green space is an easy sell in most cases because it sounds nice, but what is it exactly? It’s not a park, or a yard. It’s not a building. It’s not really anything at all, actually; it’s just filler.
A recent post on the fantastic blog Stroad to Boulevard goes further, quoting several experts in the field who say it’s actually destructive:
Green space is a new invention. What’s it for? Green Space was invented to make our other Non-Places less horrible. It basically doesn’t exist in the Traditional City.
The point is that “green space” is a useless area where there is no human interaction.
People do use the green spaces at BYU. They walk through them, lay on them when the weather is nice, play frisbee, etc. But as I’ve studied the renderings of this project I struggle to see any significant additions designed to foster human interaction. What I see instead are a few parking lots that are lined with a little bit more grass and a few more trees. In other words, slightly less horrible spaces.
The area around the Law Library (to the left of the large parking lot on the right) is perhaps the best example. According to the picture, several new lawns spaces have been created near the building. However, in many cases they’re still wedged between parking lots. And in the end, who wants to hang out on a strip of grass next to a parking lot?
It’s also worth considering these changes in terms of supply and demand. In the past, for example, was “green space” undersupplied on BYU campus? Was every square inch covered by modest sunbathers? Did the medieval club really have no where to put their tents?
I’d argue that open space is actually oversupplied on BYU campus. After all, when was the last time the grass between the library and the administration building was completely full? How about the grass near the Maeser Building? Or the lawn on the south hills?
Ultimately then, this redesign adds to BYU’s already flawed design; with its highly partitioned spaces — areas for living, learning, working, etc. are all separated by vast expanses — BYU operates under a similar philosophy as a suburban office park. It’s not unique in that sense — many people have criticized “Radiant City”-style college campuses — but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem. (Oxford offers just one possible alternative type of campus.) I also wonder who will be using the new pedestrian spaces on the east side of campus, as no major housing centers or classrooms are located directly to the east.
At the same time, this new project reduces the supply of streets in the face of constant demand. That doesn’t really make sense.
Anyone who has read this blog knows that I generally hate car-oriented development, but I’m not sure that’s what Campus Drive really is. After all, buses also use the street but in the future they’ll be pushed further from the center of campus. The street wasn’t great for bikes before, but neither is a pedestrian space where riding is illegal between classes. Safety for cyclists may increase, but convenience — which is also vital for getting people to actually bike — may decrease.
I’ve also argued that we need frequent, small streets instead of big arterials. The pedestrian benefits of that concept aren’t really an issue here, but if surrounding streets become stroads and car sewers we’ve created more problems than we’ve solved.
Finally, the most disappointing part of this entire thing is that it leaves in place a whole bunch of big parking lots. As I’ve said previously on this blog, parking lots are underperforming, hostile environments that waste money and harm their surroundings. And as the picture above shows, the center of BYU campus will continue to be surrounded by them after this redesign.
I could go on, but the point of this whole thing is that while this project seems great, the actual changes have questionable value. Check back later today for ideas on what BYU could have done if it really wanted to create a better, safer pedestrian environment.
This image shows current conditions on BYU campus. The biggest change from the redesign is that a section of street will be closed.