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Transforming the campus with car-free pedestrian zones

Schools are unpaving paradise and creating a stronger sense of place.


car_free_644A few years ago, Gould Street in downtown Toronto was a favourite shortcut, a two-lane fast-track out of the city core, used by stressed drivers as a way to circumvent the gridlock of Yonge Street and bypass its intersection with Dundas Street, one of Canada’s busiest corners. Now, Gould Street is the pedestrian-friendly heart of Ryerson University. Just one block northeast of Yonge and Dundas, two long blocks of Gould serve as an urban oasis, a sanctuary cordoned off from street traffic where nary a horn nor revving engine can be heard.

Students teem down the middle of the street, pooling on the corners in conversation. In the winter, skaters swirl around frozen Lake Devo, which is set at the corner of Gould and Victoria streets. In the summer, all sorts of tables and chairs spill out under the sun, creating a true café feel in the heart of Canada’s biggest, busiest city.

“We’re very integrated with the city, but we’re also that little bit removed from the bright lights and the traffic,” observes Julia Hanigsberg, Ryerson’s vice-president, administration and finance. She notes that this pedestrian space, which includes part of adjacent Victoria Street, is used for everything from peaceful protests to a campus-community farmer’s market. “This gives our students a well-defined place where they’re number one – they’re not taking second place to the cars or anything else.”

The changes at Ryerson are just one example of a movement toward “pedestrianization” on Canadian university campuses. The days of the 1970s and 1980s when administrators gave top priority to building vast parking lots and big, hulking structures to accommodate booming student enrolment are long gone, replaced by a far greener, more sustainable, walker-and-biker friendly approach to planning and architecture. Not only does it look nice but, say the experts, these changes also contribute to a healthier and more dynamic learning environment.

Patrick Condon, a former city planner who is now chair of urban design at the University of British Columbia’s school of architecture and landscape architecture, notes that university pedestrianization is part of a global movement that goes beyond the campus, spurred in part by concern over vehicle emissions and climate change. It’s a movement that has seen tighter restrictions on cars, more bike lanes, and downtown shopping streets transformed into broad promenades.

Dr. Condon, who holds the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments, says the movement is definitely rooted in a long academic tradition. The original Latin meaning of the word “campus” referred to a place set apart from the rest of the city for a large gathering of people. The first North American universities, such as Harvard and Yale, continued that legacy, setting apart their quadrangles and yards for people navigating on foot. “Campuses have always had their own tradition of pedestrianization,” he says, “and being what I’d call ‘cloistered spaces’ that were separated from the rest of the landscape.”

While sequestering such spaces may have been easy to do in the non-motorized 17th-century world, creating pedestrian-only spaces on city campuses in the 21st century can be daunting.  At Ryerson, the process was neither quick nor easy. Ms. Hanigsberg says students and campus planners have been pushing for this change for more than a decade. Five years ago, that long-held desire began to take shape in the form of a new campus master plan, which she calls the “blueprint for a generation.”

Seeking an urban sanctuary without hurting the neighbours, Ryerson consulted extensively with community stakeholders, especially local businesses (who worried that increased congestion caused by the closed street could negatively impact their operations), while simultaneously liaising often with Toronto City Council on important issues like re-routing traffic.

In 2010, they piloted the closure of Gould Street and created the pedestrian zone, which they call Ryerson Square, a move that became permanent in February 2012. Besides creating a placid place for students and faculty to enjoy, the square delineates a space that is set apart from the rest of the city, notes Ms. Hanigsberg, and is uniquely Ryerson.

“We’ve given students a sense of place – the sense that this is campus,” she says. The next big project will be to transform the many small laneways that snake through Ryerson’s grounds into more creative spaces, an endeavor that will be student-driven; the school is currently holding an online contest to gather the best ideas.

At Montreal’s McGill University, also at the heart of its city, planners have sought to create a stronger sense of place by cutting out the cars; but, in their case, the changes have been part of a larger city-wide transformation. In addition to closing the lower campus to motorized vehicles, the university took over McTavish Street that runs along the west side of McGill and transformed it into a pedestrian zone.

Chuck Adler, McGill’s director of campus and space planning, notes that Montreal’s city council was happy to hand over the land in the spring of 2010 when the university agreed to manage it. The city has been working with school administrators to integrate McTavish with a larger corridor that would let pedestrians walk all the way from the St. Lawrence River to Mount Royal – a trip of about two kilometres – as part of its goal to create a network of promenades urbaines by 2017 in celebration of Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

The corridor, outfitted with portable plants and benches, eventually will boast more permanent gardens and trees. The nearby McTavish Reservoir will be repaired and the green space above it revitalized. Mr. Adler says all this coincides with a number of other moves at McGill to make its campus pedestrian-friendly. The goal is aided by the fact that almost 90 percent of McGill students already use public transit. McGill lobbied hard for city bike lanes to be routed close to campus, and it offers shared Bixi Bikes and has installed a number of bike racks.

And while McGill boasts an impressive collection of heritage buildings, its campus also includes numerous examples of boxy, “brutalist” architecture constructed in the 1960s and 1970s which, says Mr. Adler, presented a challenge to the goal of a pedestrian-friendly McGill. In the end, some of their more faceless features have become key parts of this whole transformation. Their vast concrete terraces, formerly windblown and abandoned, have been transformed – with people-friendly outdoor seating, planters and other elements – into favourite spots for students to socialize and work together on projects. One has been turned into a community garden that feeds the needy.

“The number of students using these areas is startling,” says Mr. Adler. “Where there used to be dozens [of people], we now have hundreds, and a lot of the downtown community comes over here to eat lunch. It’s been a huge success.”

Perhaps the biggest transformation toward pedestrianization on a Canadian campus is taking place at the University of Windsor. Still in the early stages, the first phase of this massive project includes the closure of Sunset Avenue, a major city street, this summer after local authorities had finished upgrading a neighbouring thoroughfare.

Lead architect Paul Sapounzi explains that U of Windsor’s new master plan is exceptional and progressive. Rather than training its focus on the buildings, which is typical in a master plan, U of Windsor’s focuses on the spaces that connect them. “It’s all about creating a higher quality of life,” says Mr. Sapounzi.

The land reclaimed from Sunset will serve as a “pedestrian spine” for seven distinct, car-free zones. Included will be a waterfront commons that will showcase the Detroit River, its islands and the campus’s historic international location, including the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit on the other side. An area now occupied by a parking lot and four houses – tentatively called Community Commons Park – will become something of a centrepiece and natural interface between Windsor’s denizens and the university’s students, offering sports courts, an outdoor stage and plenty of green space. “It faces both the community and the campus. It’s a kind of melting pot for Windsor life and university life,” says Mr. Sapounzi.

An attractive, pedestrian-friendly campus can also serve as a powerful recruitment tool, a place that can make a great first impression on students. University of Windsor President Alan Wildeman maintains that the creation of these pedestrian zones will help foster an even better environment for learning. He likens the new design to an open-concept workplace, where colleagues can come together and share ideas. “The best way to increase productivity in an organization is to simply take the doors off,” he says. “We’re doing that in our own way by getting rid of the asphalt streets.”

While any campus that exchanges parking lots for parks can expect complaints and push-back from drivers (who now have to park farther away and walk greater distances), the big picture is much broader than such petty concerns, says Dr. Wildeman. A university “is about knowledge and discovery and innovation. It’s about creative thinking and people connecting,” he says. “It’s not about ‘where are the cars going to park?’”

One of the best examples of what can happen when a school makes a big move toward pedestrianization can be found at the University of British Columbia. There, the heart and soul of the campus lives in its Main Mall, which runs along a natural ridgeline on the Point Grey Peninsula. Lined with big, old trees – some of them planted by graduating classes in a tradition honoured since 1919 – the area offers stunning views out to the coastal mountains and Howe Sound. But, says campus landscape architect Dean Gregory, this beautiful environment was often sullied by the sight of big service trucks and other vehicles driving around and unloading right in the middle of it.

So, starting five years ago, UBC made the Main Mall into a pedestrian zone, replacing the roads and curbs and asphalt with pavers and broad sidewalk promenades. It was a massive project, causing plenty of headaches for students and faculty alike during the various phases of construction. And, while Mr. Gregory notes that “old habits die hard,” the school has been successful in restricting the size of service vehicles and the hours when they can drop off their goods, and drivers have been amenable to parking a little further away.

A key element of the pedestrianization was an attempt to blur the boundary between indoor and outdoor space (something helped by Vancouver’s mild climate) and to bring more of the university’s life outdoors. To this end, furniture such as lounge chairs equipped with power outlets were installed to encourage students to work outside, as were big harvest tables for group work or socializing.

This is the first year that all signs of the old mall are completely gone, says Mr. Gregory. The final result has been remarkable. “What was once a corridor to get people from point A to point B is suddenly a place to have an outdoor class, or eat lunch, or play some casual Frisbee, or study, or read, or whatever – it’s been embraced,” he says.

Kai Okazaki, a fourth-year UBC science and management student, agrees. “For sure, this gives people the opportunity to utilize the space. It gives people options to have meetings or conversations or work on group projects. In a subtle way, the infrastructure just creates a better learning environment.”

Mr. Gregory maintains that all the work towards a “big vision” was definitely worth it. “I walk around the campus and see people taking pictures all the time, and that wasn’t the case in the past. These improvements go beyond simply making things more beautiful,” he adds. “They’re about animating and invigorating and bringing life to the campus. They’re about creating a sense of pride and a strong sense of place.”

Tim Johnson
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  1. Eric Jandciu / September 5, 2014 at 08:48

    Part 2 of 2

    Another aspect of the Main Mall redesign was establishing a common “look” to the core of campus. In at least one case this meant removing perfectly functional covered bike racks from a building for aesthetic reasons. Sure, they were replaced with new bike racks, but they are not covered (it rains a lot in Vancouver, so this is important) and they hold fewer bikes. In fact, the Main Mall redesign came with the replacement of *all* bike racks, which somehow ended up reducing the overall capacity for bike parking, especially covered bike parking. And, of course, if you lock your bike anywhere other than designated spots, the lock will be cut off and your bike will be impounded. Another important note on bike racks: there was nothing wrong with the old racks. They simply didn’t match the new look. So, they were replaced with brand new bike racks that were manufactured overseas and shipped to Vancouver. These practices do not seem to be consistent with a campus that is supposedly promoting sustainable transportation choices.

    Finally, Mr. Gregory’s claim that people taking pictures of the UBC campus “wasn’t the case before” is absurd. Main Mall is a wide, tree-lined boulevard with some old limestone buildings and some modern metal and glass buildings. At one end are rose garden, water, island, and mountain views. There are outdoor art installations along Main Mall, an art gallery, and even two museums. It has been like this for decades. Photography on this part of campus is not new. Is there evidence for increased photography at UBC since the redesign? If there is, I would like to see it. In addition, people have always played sports on the grass median along Main Mall. And yes, even before the redesign, people ate lunch and drank coffee along Main Mall. I understand that the planning unit might be proud of what has been created, but if it needs to make up stories to illustrate the success, I must question the success. Also, while the new interlocking stone roads look a lot nicer than the previous asphalt roads, I’m not sure how this was a priority when, for example, there is a wait list of over 5,000 students for student housing (Vancouver has a very tight and very expensive housing market) and people are still working in “temporary” buildings that were installed decades ago.

    Main Mall is just one example of a general theme: UBC’s planning unit does not have the interests of the students, staff, faculty and residents who use the campus in mind when designing projects. Another example: UBC is spending $40 million on a new aquatic centre that isn’t right for the campus (community input was hardly sought and what was received was essentially ignored). There are two separate bus loops on campus, both recently redesigned, and both highly dysfunctional. Perpendicular to Main Mall, a cascading water feature was built that supposedly collects storm water that is then used to water campus gardens. A nice idea, but inappropriate plants were used in the water feature, so at least twice per year it needs to be drained and power-washed to remove algal blooms. I could go on.

    Just like the redesign of Main Mall, I’m sure all of these projects looked great on paper. Architectural drawings are usually impressive. But it’s important to remember that not considering the the end user in the design process results in a frustrated community and in some cases millions of wasted or misdirected taxpayer dollars.

  2. Eric Jandciu / September 5, 2014 at 08:49

    Part 1 of 2

    The redesign of Main Mall on the UBC campus might look good on paper and in aerial photographs, but in practice, for the people who actually have to use the space everyday, it is a design fail.

    Restricting vehicular traffic from the core of university campuses is a good idea. This could have been achieved at UBC by simply adding barriers at both ends of Main Mall. But this is not what the planning unit decided to do. Instead, they ripped up the existing pathways and roads and replaced them with a redesigned version. Originally, each side of the Mall had a narrow path for pedestrians and a wide path for bikes and service vehicles. The redesign removed this separation. There is now one single wide path on each side that is not wider than the original. This means that pedestrians, cyclists, and service vehicles now share the same space. This is not working. Even minimal study of this area prior to construction and spending of millions of dollars of public money would have indicated that it wouldn’t work. Now, as a cyclist, I find myself biking up and down the grass median because there is simply not enough space on the pathways. This has been made worse because benches were added along the path (not on the grass), further narrowing the space available for people and bikes. This might make it easier to cut the grass, but it doesn’t help the people who use the space. Plus, despite Mr. Gregory’s claim that Main Mall is no longer “sullied” by service vehicles, there is inevitability some sort of service vehicle along Main Mall (garbage collection, light fixture maintenance, tree trimming, grass cutting, stone repair, underground sprinkler repair, underground steam heating repair, etc.) further reducing the available space. Recognizing the increased pedestrian/cyclist conflicts, the planning department recently suggested that cyclists use the parallel roads east and west of Main Mall, but what they won’t tell you is that both of those roads are currently intense construction zones. It is impossible to cycle on these roads. And while it might not seem like much of a detour to planners, when students and instructors have only 10 min to get from one class to the next, they will take the shortest route possible. It appears that planning did not have the end user in mind during this redesign.

    Further evidence of this is that the connecting pathways between the two wide paths that are supposed to connect cyclists and pedestrians to building entrances are much too narrow (one bike and one pedestrian can barely get past each other). They are also at apparently random angles and do not take people where they need to go. There are some paths that abruptly end, which has resulted in the grass being worn out in many places, as pedestrians and cyclists create the paths that should have been there but aren’t. The random angles, again, might look neat in architectural drawings and in aerial photographs, but people interact with this space *on the ground* not from the air. Apparently absent from planning considerations is that tens of thousands of people need to use these pathways each and every day (UBC has an undergraduate population of about 48,000).

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