Nationwide, college and university leaders are grappling with questions of how and when to safely reopen in the midst of a global pandemic. In response, many institutions of higher education are turning to architects and planners for guidance through this complicated period—and a number of important trends have already emerged.
One of the most critical considerations is that with the prospect of having far fewer students, faculty and staff on campus this fall, it is ironic but likely that colleges and universities will need more rather than less space to reopen safely. Addressing this reality will require a series of physical changes to the campus, highlighted by a need to reduce density and rapidly transform the public realm, the spaces between buildings. Creative thinking will be essential to transform these learning environments so they can accommodate new public-health protocols without sacrificing the vibrancy of campus life. In fact, this situation presents opportunities, as well as challenges.
With strategic planning and innovative design solutions, some of these changes could represent a first step toward long-term improvements to models of the campus environment. For architects, planners and institutional leaders looking to navigate these challenges, here are several emerging considerations to keep in mind:
REDUCE CAMPUS DENSITY. It’s likely that as the fall semester begins, college and university leaders will look to populate residence halls with fewer students. This move toward de-densification is already a major trend in student-life departments, and increased efforts to reduce density within campus housing create a clear path for facilitating social distancing.
With finite housing resources, how will colleges and university leaders accommodate this lower density? For one, fewer students wanting to be on campus fulltime will assist in housing de-densification. Strategic partnerships are another option: As an additional measure, for example, George Washington (GW) University in Washington, D.C.—a major university for which Cooper Robertson is in the midst of developing a campus plan—is exploring opportunities to house students who have tested positive for COVID-19, and need to temporarily quarantine, outside of the campus in neighborhood hotels. The hospitality sector has felt significant impacts from pandemic lockdowns, so this temporary situation is seen as a win-win.
On the other hand, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., both universities where Cooper Robertson has recently helped craft long-range master plans, are taking a different approach. They are crafting unique allowances for different classes, with a preference for first-years. Harvard is allowing mainly first-year students and some students in special circumstances back in the fall. In the spring, first years will leave and seniors will return. Second- and third-year students will study virtually from home. Similarly, Georgetown will invite first-years to its D.C. campus and bar most others from living there to protect public health. (Learn more about staggered on-campus attendance.)
Staggered on-campus attendance offers another means of reducing density. Similar conversations are taking place in other sectors. As the professional world begins to inch toward reopening, for instance, much of the discussion is centered about how to optimize one’s time in the office versus at home. Creative and collaborative work is reserved for the few days of in-office activity while focused efforts are reserved for work-from-home days. Colleges and universities are likely to use a similar model. In this model, students would come to campus for brief, but intensive, face-to-face experiences and then return home to complete the focused work online with their classmates and instructors. Bringing students to campus in successive waves reduces their exposure and allows for greater density control in teaching and social spaces. (Read more about this social-distancing concept.)
TRANSFORM THE PUBLIC REALM. As the capacity of classrooms, dining halls and social spaces plummets in the face of social- distancing protocols, colleges will also turn to the spaces between buildings—the public realm of their campuses—for much- needed academic and social capacity. The implications for planning and design work are significant. On any campus where there has been a longstanding desire to refresh a plaza, close a street, or upgrade a quad, there will be added incentive to do so and in a way that emphasizes adaptability and flexibility. These outdoor spaces will now serve double or even triple duty as outdoor classrooms, dining centers (long live the food truck!), outdoor living rooms and places to decompress from what is surely to be an emotionally complex start to the school year.
As an example, Cooper Robertson is working on several urban campuses to paint a vision for how these concepts can become a reality. An idea tested last fall for our GW master plan would transform a street at the university’s core into a lively and pedestrian-friendly space. Already in the process of exploring “parklets” in place of on-street parking, GW has now requested a temporary closure of parking lanes in that street to accommodate additional space needed to allow adequate social distancing for pedestrians. The university is looking to rapidly deploy more furnishings to convert the space into a new hub of student activity.
Outdoor learning will also take on a greater role. We’re seeing this movement already happening on bucolic campuses nationwide. For example, Amherst College in Massachusetts is planning to set up 20 tents equipped with power and teaching technologies to deliver courses outside. Consistent with the trend to make every space as flexible as possible, the tents at Amherst are being configured to also provide venues for special extracurricular space. (Review Amherst College’s plan.)
Ultimately, every college and university will confront unique challenges during the reopening process, but one thing is clear: The value of maintaining some semblance of on-campus life is a top priority for higher-education leaders and students alike. Three hallmarks of higher education— innovation, collaboration and community—rely on the interpersonal relationships and the social friction that only a tight-knit campus environment can provide. As architects and planners with the ability to shape college and university spaces, we can play a critical role in making these spaces safe in a way that leaves the campus environment better off than before.