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Spaceship University: Can Bryant Do It?

Meet Brown University (and neighborhood) in the top image, and Bryant University (and parking lots) in the lower one.

Brown University has over 9,000 students, and this image includes lots and lots of things that
aren't technically the "campus".
Bryant University has about 3,000 students, and a lot of its campus is taken up by hideous parking. 
The tools I use to do stuff like this are fairly imprecise. Let me give you the boring details, so that you can see I'm comparing similar things. The images are the same width, east to west, but appear to be different magnifications because the Brown University one is longer north to south (they're actually at the same magnification, but I wanted to be fair and include extraneous parts of Brown's campus in Fox Point and around its athletic centers to not compared apples to oranges). Blogger changes things up to get the best fit for the images, so it's not apparent that these are in scale, but when you realize that they are, the size of Bryant's parking becomes jarring: it's like a neighborhood of its own!

We got a car recently, so that Rachel can carry large masses of goods to and fro to farmers' markets, and so while we drive very infrequently, this is now something I go by fairly often. I've never been to Bryant University before, other than to look at its gates as I whiz by in the passenger seat of Rachel's car, but I got suddenly interested in it (because, basically, the themes of my blog posts are often based just on whatever I happen to go by in a given week). 

And I got to thinking: places like this are like Buckminster Fuller's Spaceship Earth.

Spaceship Earth is a kind of hackneyed idea at this point. Fuller pointed out that we're all in space. Right. Now. We are all in space! Because the Earth is a moving body in space as much as anything is-- the moon, the sun, the stars-- we are cosmic wanderers. 

I was thinking about that in relationship to places like Bryant, because one's first thought is that Bryant is "in the country" or at least "in the exurbs/suburbs". Of course it has a lot of parking. People drive in the country, silly James! Brown doesn't have lots of parking because it's firmly planted in terra firma on the Earth, um, the city.

But it's not really that way at all. Both campuses are hubs of activity, and in a sense, a campus is a planetary body of human activity floating through the "space" of the rural world. Bryant could surely reduce its parking-- not all at once, because that would cause a kerfuffle, but certainly a little at a time. Imagine how differently the "city" or "village" of Bryant would be if this happened, piece by piece. Travel between the "planets" of Brown and Bryant would now happen with mutual recognition that each was a place. The waste-of-funding last resort bus that is currently running between Providence and Bryant would probably be much better used. The campus could get carved into bike routes, so that the splayed out buildings along the huge green would be more connected internally. Maybe more student and faculty housing could gradually be added to where parking had been-- the zoning could be left really open to allow mixed-use, like a town or city. 

Learn from Rural Places
Our trip passes through Slatersville too, which is another place I never gave much of a thought to, and have only been through a few times en route to something else. But you can really get the Spaceship Earth feeling going through Slatersville. You're visiting another planet-- a village that is surely a Pluto to Providence's Neptune-- but one that has the same general form. It's a place. 

Rural places are interesting, because the ones we actually like have a lot more in common with cities than they do with suburbs. They're often just much smaller versions of cities. Market Urbanism recently wrote a good piece about the lessons we can learn from trailer parks:

Trailer parks are looked down upon by many. My uncle lived for many years in a trailer park, and though it was a very different life than the one I was used to, in many ways I always liked his trailer park. You could walk around in it on narrow lanes. My uncle and cousins always seemed to know their neighbors, and to have informal recreational spaces right in their community.

Market Urbanism's post reminds us that the rarity of this form (along with the rarity of other kinds of low income housing) isn't accidental:
Any discussion of trailer parks should start with the fact that most forms of low-income housing have been criminalized in nearly every major US city. Beginning in the 1920s, urban policymakers and planners started banning what they deemed as low-quality housing, including boarding houses, residential hotels, and low-quality apartments. Meanwhile, on the outer edges of many cities, urban policymakers undertook a policy of “mass eviction and demolition” of low-quality housing. Policymakers established bans on suburban shantytowns and self-built housing. In knocking out the bottom rung of urbanization, this ended the natural “filtering up” of cities as they expanded outward, replaced as we now know by static subdivisions of middle-class, single-family houses. The Housing Act of 1937 formalized this war on “slums” at the federal level and by the 1960s much of the emergent low-income urbanism in and around many U.S. cities was eliminated.
Says Market Urbanism:
By combining these liberal land-use regulations with narrow streetsshared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities. With functional urban densities and traditional urban design, the only thing missing in most trailer parks is a natural mixture of commercial and industrial uses. Many urban trailer parks likely bypass this zoning-imposed challenge by locating within walking distance of commercial and industrial uses.
So mixed use is key, as well as learning from the other lessons all around us in successful rural places.

Making a Planet out of the Nebula of Bryant University
The suburban retrofit is a concept that has gained currency. I agree with parts of what proponents say, as well as some of the things said by detractors. But universities, as places that should be villages or cities of their own, are good examples of where retrofitting can happen, in my opinion. How could Bryant move forward?

*Start charging for parking-- parking is currently "free". If students, faculty, and staff don't like the idea of paying for parking (who would?) then offer them lower tuition and/or raises using the parking revenue raised. This is called a parking cash-out, and it will reduce the demand for parking. Also, free parking isn't free. It's just included in tuition or salaries right now. Make it a la carte.

*Make a plan to gradually reduce parking, with the end goal being a large reduction. The first spots to be eliminated should be easy pickings: choose the ones that are less occupied now that people are paying to park.

*Reducing parking can go alongside really nice things: added green space, new university buildings, or students and faculty housing. And why not invite some businesses on campus? I caution that I haven't been to Bryant, so perhaps the internet is just lying to me, but from what I gathered online, the food situation sucks. And consider allowing, or even nudging, to have development be mixed use, sot that restaurants or grocery stores are on the bottom floors of new buildings, with housing on the top. America is not nearly as mixed-use as it has been, but the one place that never has trouble holding together a mixed-use marketplace is a college campus.

*Work to get better frequency and span to the 52 bus. Students go on message-boards and complain about what a lousy student experience they're having because this hasn't been done. If I were the university, I'd want my image to get better treatment online. Fix it!

*Biking is all-important. The bus routes can only solve so many problems. Don't make the mistake of putting together some kind of circulator route (by the way, I love the magic coincidence of this link referring to a solar system metaphor!) between things in the campus and surrounding community, because those routes always take longer to get to their locations than just driving. Instead, connect near points using bike paths. You already paved the bike paths. It's the parking lot. What you need is attractive buffers of green space so that people using those paved areas are visually and physically separated from cars. Put some hedges in, or some flowerbeds. Make it so that someone  isn't even tempted to get in their car on one side of campus and drive and park on the other side. 

*Intra-campus bike-share would make sense too. If General Motors can do it, you can. 

We're going on a trip on our favorite rocket ship. It's time for Bryant University to come back to Spaceship Earth and take some action.


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