Planning the U-M Medical Campus

The University of Michigan recently unveiled a master plan for the University’s rapidly growing medical campus, which is explained in an article in today’s University Record.
I am glad to see the university inching towards the realization that
the medical campus that currently exists is a positively hostile place
for pedestrians esthetically, visually, and literally. Walking around
the medical campus today is a daunting experience for the pedestrian:
there is no grid or explanations about how to find one’s way, and the
buildings are designed with their internal functions in mind. In fact,
it is almost entirely designed around the auto. What is needed is an
element of urbanity in the medical campus that is currently lacking.

Too
often the sort of campus planning conducted by the university is the
sort that looks down from above and maps out parking and pedestrian
flows, and where buildings can be build or expand in harmony with the
existing structures. (This graphic is a detail from a larger image
from the new Master Plan) Although this sort of planning is very
important, it overlooks how important the experience of the campus is
from the pedestrian level. Up to this point the U-M hospital complex
has taken the form of what I think of as “postmodern urbanism? – that
is, extremely high levels of density that nonetheless are unpleasant
for pedestrians and confusing for visitors because they are designed
for access from autos and designed to contain pedestrians inside the
structure exclusively. The buildings do not interface with the street,
frequently containing entrances only from parking structures or from
special roundabouts designed for autos. All commercial activity is
sequestered inside food courts difficult or impossible to access from
the outside, despite the thousands of students living in hill
dormitories.

Consciously constructing an environment of
pedestrian urbanism would not only create a pleasant environment for
the employees and patients of the hospital, but also cater to the needs
of the tens of thousands of students who live in hill dorms and would
patronize any potential common space or retail. (I find it ironic that
Michigan’s hospital has a great cardiac unit, but it’s easier to drive
around the medical campus than walk and the food court contains a Wendy’s.)
How might the university provide for growth but also encourage such an
environment? Build the large laboratories that are needed, but reserve
some ground floor space next to the sidewalk for permeable functions –
either a lobby adjacent the street, or small shops open to the street.
At least one convenience store was destroyed to make way for parking,
and I don’t imagine it would be too hard to find a vendor interested in
occupying a small space, say, across the street from the massive Mary
Markley dorm. In the long term, the rent from university-owned
commercial space could bring the university revenue.

I
am encouraged by the glimmer of awareness to these needs that can be
found in the master plan – they’ve identified “Integration of physical
facilities with the natural environment and community? as an important
goal, and even have a slide listing “improved pedestrian amenities?
(where this image was found) as part of a Powerpoint presentation
about the plan. Whether or not they have the understanding of how to
make this a reality – beyond sterile walking paths that go nowhere and
nobody can find – remains to be seen – notice the streetscaping in the
image is great, but the building is just a blank wall. The ultimate
irony is that the university’s planning and architecture schools has
some of the nation’s pre-eminent new urbanist planners and thinkers,
who gave many suggestions similar to these when tasked by interim
president B. Joseph White for creating a plan for North Campus.
The university is slowly realizing – like most cities have – that
chewing up their urban fabric to create unpleasant and banal suburban
spaces in fact ruins what makes Ann Arbor so attractive to students,
professors, and residents alike.

Related Posts:
> See my post on the University’s destruction of the Planada building to make way for medical campus parking, or my post on the Planada in Preservation Magazine.? Yes, they’re building a parking garage on that spot.
> See my post on broader University planning issues, in response to an op-ed in the Ann Arbor News
> See my first rant about the need for street-level commercial space on Medical Campus

Looking back, I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this stuff. I wrote this in November 2003:

The
University must recognize their role in destroying street life. Parking
garages, massive office and laboratory buildings all enforce a
uniformity of use on the surrounding streets: meaning they will only be
used at certain times of the day, and there will never be businesses,
no matter how many pedestrians pass buy hungry for a cup of coffee or a
bagel. There is no rational or economic reason why all new University
buildings must be single-use, only a cultural one.

Maybe I’m slowly becoming the cranky old man I was once rumored to be …

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Author: Rob Goodspeed