UCBerkeley Sather Gate

Letter From Berkeley: Campus Planning in an Increasingly Virtual World

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted our university—the University of California, Berkeley—totally online, along with the whole of education from childcare up across the country and most of the planet. In the wake of this forced and unprecedented experiment, debates about what it means remain ongoing. Will the episodic dream of a placeless university, or at minimum a hybrid place/placeless one, come true? Millennia of experience argue for giving higher education a local, physical anchor. And most universities and colleges have this anchor as their starting place, even as they consider what their ongoing experience with virtual teaching, research, and administration means. 

Campus planners, those most directly responsible for pondering the future of universities as physical places, are avid followers of this experiment and the debates around it. The future of a university is guided by two questions: “What kind of places suit this institution?” and “How much of them do we need?” These questions look beyond the campus proper to ask how its community finds housing, services, entertainment, and culture in its university city and the metropolis around it.

Instead of thinking of place and placeless as opposites, it may be better for today’s campus planners to embrace the concept of Ba: a “shared space for emerging relationships, providing a platform for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge.” Put forward by Japanese  philosopher Kitaro Nishida and his followers, Ba sees the real and the virtual inextricably intermingled. Instead of focusing on physical space alone, they suggest, campus planners should be asking how a university can best support the relationships that advance knowledge. 

This capacious, real-and-virtual take on place takes in the full repertory of physical spaces and connective tissue that support a university community, a milieu that campus planners both direct and influence. They are engaged participants in what amounts to a democratic process. 

The 178 acres of the U.C. Berkeley campus were never an island. From the start, Berkeley, a university city, has shared the broad values and purposes of its institution. The two are as much part of the cosmos as they are part of the East Bay, nestled in its hills, but both are prone to overcrowding. They form a whole that is set within a larger context that unfolds in response to the same pressures, the same pandemic, the same economic and political turmoil. 

Having put our lives on hold en masse, with lingering questions about how to revive the campus and much else for full human use, planners need to look ahead open-endedly. This is the real spirit of “Never let a pandemic go to waste.” By slowing things down, they can get a clearer sense of what really matters for the university, discounting the instant pundits’ overreactions to the pandemic’s disruptions while taking seriously the working assumptions it challenges. 

Heading into the pandemic, U.C. Berkeley projected that its campus population would grow to 70,000 faculty, researchers, administrators, staff, and students. That announcement led the City of Berkeley to bring a lawsuit, as this would nearly double a previously agreed-to cap. This raises a series of questions: What kind of place is a finite 178-acre campus with 70,000 people? Where will they be housed? How and at what pace will they get back and forth? U.C. Berkeley combines four-year undergraduate programs, graduate programs, and a vast amount of research. Should it delegate some of this to other institutions? Should it continue to grow as it currently is? The impact of 70,000 people suggests an on-campus experience like Venice with mass tourism. 

A change in administrations may ease these problems, but they raise larger questions about the nature of a university community: How local should it be? What are its responsibilities to its region and, as a leading research university, to the nation and the world?

The pandemic has halted mass tourism and other features of a “peak global” world that were starting to unravel before it hit. Political disagreements between China and the U.S. had already sparked a decline in enrollments at U.C. Berkeley from Chinese nationals. More worryingly, they were eroding the trust relationships that make research possible between U.C. Berkeley and equivalent institutions in China, and also hindering Chinese investment in research here. A change in administrations may ease these problems, but they raise larger questions about the nature of a university community: How local should it be? What are its responsibilities to its metropolitan region and, as a leading research university, to the nation and the world?

These questions are especially timely as U.C. Berkeley begins its Long-Range Development Plan (LRDP) process, a 20-year projection of the campus’s physical growth to meet its programmatic needs in light of its institutional ambitions. The pandemic is likely to weigh on the deliberations of the long-range planners. Trying to operate as a placeless university is like the “work from home” (WFH) efforts of other large organizations in the region to stay in business. Acceptable as a temporary exigency, WFH ignores the impacts it puts on the milieu. Unchecked growth raises the same red flag. If the milieu is the real context, then its planning has to be systemic. That is, it has to account for the externalities that affect ordinary people and the environment.

As the Bay Region revives from the pandemic’s shutdown, there are substantive debates that reflect people’s experience of what just happened. Central business districts and suburban corporate campuses both face doubts about their future from a workforce that’s less convinced of the benefits of workplace proximity and more resistant to the long commutes that come with it. Parents, reintroduced to their school-age children, question if having two full-time careers is worth the damage. Homeless people, newly housed in hotels, disprove political assumptions that this wasn’t possible. Tourists and tourism have much less priority. In short, how the region sees itself is in flux. Next steps are hard to predict, but the solution space is considerably enlarged. 

Among the pandemic’s most dramatic and almost immediate effects in the Bay Region was to clear the air. This raised questions about our continued dependence on petroleum-fueled cars, trucks, buses, and trains, and it showed how the region functions as an ecosystem, with the nature of the economy driving environmental degradation. Higher education as a network fits into this interconnected milieu. A 20-year plan for U.C. Berkeley has to account for the ecosystem in which it is situated, a larger whole that struggles currently to provide education, healthcare, housing, and transit at anything like a mass scale. The pandemic revealed a series of frayed and broken systems. 

U.C. Berkeley exemplifies where we are today. Starved of state funding for several decades, it more closely resembles a private institution like Stanford in the way it depends on other sources of revenue to stay afloat. The cost of attending is higher, and individual programs that can attract higher-paying students charge considerably more. The pandemic has exposed what a creaking machine it’s become, potentially unsustainable. The LRDP invites the campus to consider, not for the first time, what a leading public research university should be in a world moving toward a new midcentury—how it can spur relationships and create vital knowledge, fulfilling once again a mandate that goes back to its roots as a Land Grant institution. 

It’s interesting to us that the Slow Movement, applied initially in the Bay Region to food, is relevant to these deliberations. Like Ba, Slow has always aimed to bridge local and global. Alice Waters, its leading spokesperson, understood that the survival of the local required a symbiotic relationship with markets or constituencies beyond itself. But phenomena like mass tourism are the shadow side of the local/global relationship—what goes wrong when it loses its balance. Inherent in the Slow concept, whether applied to food and cuisine or towns and cities, is the idea of constant deliberation to keep the relationship in check, recognizing that the local is ever vulnerable to damaging, even ruinous exploitation. Ba asks us to consider the relationships we hope to foster, and Slow asks us to consider how to balance the local and communal with the national and international. The risk of local and communal is provinciality; the risk of national and international is homogenization, leveling, the loss or eradication of difference. Between them is the cosmopolitan world that universities have always sought: local and global both. 

Featured image: Sather Gate, University of California, Berkeley, courtesy of UC Berkeley.

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