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Campus Planning and You

Jeff Roberts

Current MIT students are seeing the completion of one of the largest campus development programs in the history of the Institute. Expectedly, MIT’s newest buildings have been the subject of much criticism by students, along with most others in the community. But as students criticize what they see, it is important for them to do so with an eye towards how MIT might develop its campus in the future. While students are not likely to see much more construction occur in the near future, MIT will be preparing the planning and design work necessary for future building projects. I believe that students should be aware of this planning work as it occurs, and I feel that MIT as a whole may benefit from their input into the campus planning process.

Students may not be particularly interested in MIT’s campus planning because of their relatively short tenure. Though there are many students who remain at MIT for a very long time, the typical student “generation” lasts for four to five years. Many current students have seen massive projects being built, including the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, Simmons Hall, and Sidney-Pacific, but might not realize that the planning work for these projects began as early as the 1970s. The planning decisions MIT makes over the next few years will have major impacts that might not be realized until long after the current generation of students has left.

However, while individual students are only at MIT for several years, the larger community of students has enduring characteristics. One of the hallmarks of MIT is the continual informal interaction that occurs among generations of students, resulting in the transmission of ideas from one generation to the next. Students of the past, present, and future will tend to share many similar values, particularly with respect to the environment in which they study, live, eat, and socialize. Some values of the student body may change gradually over time, as the world around MIT changes, and as individuals thoughtfully challenge long-held beliefs. If campus development intends to support a high quality of student life, it is vital that students are engaged in the planning process at all times, so that long-held planning goals can be continually tested against the changing desires of the community.

Students are also the segment of the MIT community that interacts with the campus virtually all day, every day. Most faculty and administrators interact with the campus as a place of business, while students experience the campus as a living environment as well as a working environment. Current students can add value to the campus planning process because they can scrutinize it from a perspective that administrators, professionals, and others cannot. While professionals may be able to study and identify potential shortcomings of the campus, students live with those shortcomings every day. Thus, students develop an instinct for whether development choices might have a positive or negative impact on their quality of life.

Earlier this year, I undertook a study based on conversations with resident students about the quality of the MIT campus. The resulting thesis, entitled “Is MIT a Good Place to Live? The University Campus as a Residential Environment” (http://web.mit.edu/thejoker/thesis), provides some examples of where MIT’s planning ideals and student desires might diverge.

For instance, MIT’s planning over the past fifty years assumes that academic and research activities should be confined to the area east of Massachusetts Avenue, and the west campus should become a comfortable residential environment. MIT accordingly planned for its west campus residences to have river views and proximity to athletics and recreation facilities, and internal facilities for study, dining, and socializing. However, the research in my thesis indicates that students living on west campus feel isolated from the main campus and from students in other dormitories, and that the athletics fields, which are difficult to access, are a hindrance rather than a convenience. Most students would prefer residences that formed smaller blocks with courtyards situated closer to the main campus, which would sacrifice river views and the convenience of athletics fields but would result in a greater feeling of community within.

As another example, my research showed that students are generally unhappy with the aesthetic “look and feel” of the campus, many feeling that it is cold and industrial, and resembles a workplace instead of a college environment. The MIT administration promotes its current campus building initiative as a means of improving the aesthetic character of the campus and creating a more iconic look for MIT. However, in the course of my research, students criticized these new aesthetic features, ranging from large projects like Simmons Hall to small ones like the new Lobby 7 information kiosks, as reinforcing the cold aesthetic character of the campus, and making the campus feel more like a workplace than a living and learning environment.

I don’t mean to imply that students should make campus planning decisions themselves. Some people may reasonably argue that students, because of their immersive campus experience, might lack the perspective to think of creative new ideas. My intent is only to suggest that students can use their experience to complement the expertise of professional planners, designers, administrators, and others involved in the campus planning process. Specifically, I think students can help in defining problems and criticizing recommended solutions. If they are integrated into the process thoughtfully, students can help guide professionals towards excellent planning solutions.

I hope this will serve as a call to students to take an interest in future campus development, as well as to administrators to think of ways by which students can aid their decision-making. Planning decisions are being made at MIT all the time -- in the Department of Facilities, in the Building Committee, in the offices of the vice president, chancellor, provost, and deans. From the next new student dormitory to future changes in MIT’s buildings, pathways, and landscapes, the decisions MIT makes will impact students far into the future. Students, individually or in groups, within or outside of student government organizations, should think about how they can help guide this planning process towards a favorable outcome.

Jeff Roberts is a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.