By Phil Myrick
A good public square can make an enormous difference in the vitality of a downtown district or neighborhood, and the same goes for universities campuses. The very idea of a distinct community for learning, with gathering places for students and scholars to exchange, was one of the great inventions of a young American republic. The legendary Lawn laid out by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia is a brilliant and inspiring example.
But today, many campuses lack quality squares, commons, or other places that bring their community together for interaction and fun. Attention and money is lavished on facilities, rather than the critical spaces between buildings. Even in strict financial terms, this approach doesn’t make sense when you consider that it is the special places on campus that alumni best remember, and it is very often these places that play a strong role in attracting new students.
PPS is launching a new program to help universities improve their public spaces–and their sense of community–by offering more ways for diverse sets of people to interact. To accomplish this, campuses need to promote a variety of activities that are not specifically academic. It is not enough to build a university around the specialized needs of its academic programs; it also needs a collection of distinct gathering places that foster a greater sense of connection.
On any campus, there should be at least ten interesting, well used public places that attract all kinds of people. This concept is what PPS calls “The Power of Ten.” Within each place, there should be at least ten things to do, such as eating, drinking, reading, browsing, playing games, looking at art, and so on. Such places bridge the gap between the distinct and diverse communities within the academic institution; they are the settings for civic gatherings, residential life, academic discussions, and they may possess a variety of public, private, academic, retail and cultural amenities. What’s more, they can help build or heal town-gown relations.