Cornell University consortium's proposal for new campus on Roosevelt Island, New York

The first exhibit shows a rendering of the joint Cornell UniversityTechnion-Israel Institute of Technology graduate school of applied sciences proposed to replace a hospital on New York’s Roosevelt Island (click on the image and it’ll take you to a video). This tiny island is administratively part of Manhattan and situated in the East River opposite Queens. It has a population of 12,000 and a subway station. You can see the site in Google Maps, here.

The proposed development reminds me of many Australian suburban universities built in the 60s and 70s and, I think, has lessons for what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our established “bush universities”. But I’ll come to that shortly.

The planned building is a series of light and airy structures with an integrated ‘look’, surrounded by plenty of open space, paving, landscaping, trees and, as Jane Jacob’s would say, lots of “grass, grass, grass”. It gives no indication it’s located within one of the western world’s most vibrant, bustling, dense and interesting cities. In terms of its contribution to New York’s urban life, an island seems an appropriate metaphor.

Steven Smith at Forbes reckons it’s a “fairly Corbusian plan, replete with lots of concrete plazas and grassy knolls …..and no retail space in sight”.  He also says:

Anyone who’s ever been to one of New York’s many towers-in-a-park high-rises or zoning code-enabled privately-owned public spaces knows better than to believe that what New Yorkers really want is a bunch of grass and concrete to hang out on. If those sorts of grid-breaking, low lot coverage superblocks fail in dense Manhattan neighborhoods, I shudder to think of how barren they’ll look on a difficult-to-get-to corner of Roosevelt Island.

Naturally it’s a green building, claiming to be the largest net-zero energy building in the eastern US. But as Charlie Gardner at the Old Urbanist points out,”there is nothing particularly green in under-using high-value urban land adjacent to mass transit”. In an inspired move, he identified some similarly sized islands elsewhere in the world that developed along a different route. They are much denser – and more “urban” – than the Cornell consortium proposes.

He points to Île Saint-Louis in Paris, Chioggia just south of Venice, and Rhoda Island in Central Cairo. You can take a closer look at each of these through the wonder of Google Maps – Île Saint-Louis (see second exhibit), Chiogga and Rhoda Island.

How islands have developed elsewhere: Île Saint-Louis in Paris - Click to view in Google Maps

Of course these are traditional cities. If that seems a little too romantic, there are plenty of other models that provide a better sense of urbanism and more efficient use of land than what Cornell’s proposing. For example, there’s New York University, also in Manhattan – here it is in Google Maps. Or there’s this proposed redevelopment project, The Village at the University of Southern California in South Los Angeles (see third exhibit).

Now to the connection with Australian universities. One of my continuing professional interests is the potential of suburban universities to contribute to improving housing supply and stronger activity centres. Some tertiary institutions are giant land banks. They have very large land holdings, some of which could potentially be converted to more intensive uses at high densities.

For example, look at La Trobe (Melbourne), Murdoch (Perth) and Griffith (Brisbane) universities using Google Maps. These institutions were developed on the same “block in a park” model that Cornell envisages for Roosevelt Island.

Reflecting the historical view of the university as a metaphorical island, they’re disconnected physically from the surrounding urban fabric by a “moat” of car spaces, playing fields, hardly-used parkland, conservation reserves and bush. More recently, some have used their extensive land holdings to attract clean businesses to sylvan technology “parks”. Some have sold land for residential development at low or modest densities.

All of this land is now like the winter fat on a hibernating bear. The universities have got stores of land that could be developed (or redeveloped) at high densities to help deal with one of our greatest challenges – increasing the supply of housing in older middle ring suburbs. They have the great advantage that the land is in a single ownership and neighbours are few – factors that seriously limit intensive development in established areas.

And it’s not just housing. Some campuses are in strategic locations with the potential to develop as major suburban office centres. They already have a critical mass of workers and customers, good public transport services (mainly buses) and a range of the facilities and services already used to support a daily population of many thousands. Most of the difficulties of land assembly – a common barrier to the growth of office space in existing centres – would effectively be eliminated.

Development along the lines envisaged at the University of Southern California (see third exhibit) would undoubtedly change the existing “bush character” of these universities. Parts of them would become distinctly urban in character. However the amount of land involved at these sorts of densities would not be large and sensitive areas like conservation zones could be integrated without damage.

Proposed Town Square, USC Village, University of Southern California

Redevelopment could offer cash-strapped universities a source of revenue. It could also give them a new model of integration with the wider community, both in terms of commercial activity and a more cosmopolitan lifestyle for staff and students. The latter could be a key advantage in competing for full fee-paying students. There’s also a significant benefit for local communities in having access to a large and diverse activity centre with high-skill, high-pay job opportunities.

Where universities lack the infrastructure for intensive development, it will generally be smarter to retro-fit the required services rather than seek to expand an existing centre where development is difficult.