The Residential College Experience and New Urbanism

Matthew Gerken, in Philanthropy Daily, has a nice essay entitled “Why We Love College.”  For all the problems with the American university experience – they’re not preparing the kids for jobs! – they’re not preparing the kids for anything but jobs! – those who have the residential college experience [and I would remind Mr Gerken that these are a minority of people who are taking college classes, for commuter students are the majority] it is an exceptional experience, Gerken explains that “college often constitutes the single strongest community that we will ever be a part of.”  There are songs; people bond around sports teams; people join various subgroups and are hazed; “the tight bonds we made were made possible not because we were uniquely free, but because we were heavily constrained by the built environment.  Almost everything we needed was a fifteen-minute walk away.  We walked to the dining hall, we walked to class.  Most importantly we walked to each other.”

It seems to me that the desire for New Urbanism may be rooted to a considerable degree in nostalgia for the residential college experience, and that a considerable number of its advocates are people who have had that experience.  I plead guilty myself.  It is by the way quite possible to build environments that are mostly single family homes or at least dual family homes that are fairly walkable as far as being able to reach local shops, restaurants, and services, though not big box retailers or most jobs.  We used to build them.  It’s called the American small town.  I live in such a district myself.  And the time when most young people plan to seek out the suburbs is when they enter the ‘child monastery,’ as I call it, a time when our social lives are radically transformed, far more radically than marriage itself; DINKS don’t seek out the suburbs in such numbers.  And I will also concede that I don’t know my neighbors in this paleo-urbanist enclave as well as I probably would if I was on a cul-de-sac with young children and the street was full of young children of about the same age.  And also, what makes Californians willing to live in a slightly denser environment, often enough, is the immediate proximity of large bodies of water, which also raise havoc with affordability and mean that these areas are not accessible to the common person.  But then again, the price of these areas means that they are all the more likely to be inhabited by people who have had a residential college experience!

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