What is the Meaning of “Place” on the Post-Pandemic Campus?
Late summer 2021, U.C. Berkeley: The pandemic we thought was behind us has returned to torment us as variants. The students have returned and are likely to pass these variants back and forth. Most of those stricken will suffer what amounts to a bad flu—but, given the size of the campus population, we can expect some deaths. For once, the campus is ahead of the region’s tech industry, which put the brakes on a return to physical workplaces. Debates continue about the costs and benefits of working remotely.
The university is engaged with two large housing projects south and west of the campus proper, along with a new college replacing Tolman Hall opposite Arch Street along Hearst Avenue. All three reflect current thinking on academic development, which is to say that all three look back more than they look around, or ahead. Given that buildings of this scale are good for several generations—Tolman Hall lasted 70 years, a relatively short span by campus standards—the future in consideration extends at least to 2100. We’ll be long dead when they get there, but the century’s end is a sober reminder that whatever we build now will still be here then.
Accurately predicting the next few years in light of the pandemic is challenged by the daunting range of issues that have surfaced. Much that seemed fixed as inherently place-bound proved not to be, and the detachment from place proved liberating in removing brutal commutes and allowing some families to rebalance work with the needs of young children. Others chose to quit cities in search of less expensive options, especially for housing. A new divide opened up between the relatively affluent and those below that crucial, shifting threshold. Climate change, with its attendant extreme weather events, wildfires, and droughts, made some of the moves to the country problematic for the affluent and poor alike. But the point was made: place matters, but “where” is a looser construct, less justifiably mandatory for participants.
The issue was reinforced by the immediate benefit of engaging a much broader network in the everyday transactions of academic life—a benefit anticipated in the workplace and made more robust there by rapidly improving support for virtual teaming and conferencing. We saw three things: routine collegial engagement far beyond the normal boundaries of the campus; the introduction of “higher production values” in some talks and lectures, leveraging the medium; and the relative intimacy that the medium itself provides, giving participants a clearer sense of the speakers and of each other. Something is lost, of course—the spontaneity of interaction in a seminar room, for example, and the side chats and banter that pervade campus settings—and the virtual interface still has real limits, especially for large gatherings. But a hybrid approach to research and teaching, as opposed to a purely place-based one, will persist, with good reason.
Something has been gained that it would be a mistake to lose. Part of the gain is leverage, the ability of the university to accommodate a larger cohort without necessarily burdening the physical campus, the wider community, and the region. Given that a campus population of 70,000 was mooted just prior to the pandemic, such leverage may be crucial to address current distortions imposed by the decline of full tuition–paying students from abroad, which was already evident before the pandemic due to political tensions.
The decisions being made, especially about new campus buildings, have long-term implications. These projects are capital expenditures that can be reasonably expected to support the university’s teaching and research activities for decades. But something more radical than what’s being considered now is needed to get U.C. Berkeley to 2100 as the leading public research university it has always aspired to be. A starting point is to take seriously the reality that the university is a networked organization within a much wider network—to recognize how this points to flatness, fluidity, and openness, radically altering how the university is viewed and structured. It points to an ecosystemic view of the institution as a real/virtual construct, accepting as given its essential interconnectedness.
The university’s historic campus and the immediate environment it controls serve as an anchor, a real place that persists in time and space but also lives in memory and the imagination. And yet, as a preeminent public research university, U.C. Berkeley is connected with an array of peers, each also a “real place” that anchors its own network of academic and research communities. Most of these peers are also engaged in place-centered development and stewardship. All of them are rooted in their own localities, but unavoidably wondering how to leverage what they just experienced, working around the limitations to physical proximity imposed by the pandemic.
Not only are they comparing notes, but they’re aware of how the pandemic has disrupted the commercial workplace, denting the value of those properties, and threatened central districts, which were emerging as mixed-use hubs. It may all come back, but—much like the effects of climate change—pandemics may recur in faster cycles. And we may come to recognize that a network of relatively dense, interconnected centers is more resilient for a region than an overly dense inner core that fades off into suburbs and exurbs.
The goal isn’t to “break down silos” but to connect them meaningfully, aware that they’re part of a larger vision of what public education is and does. Each separate institution can still have its place, its community, and its allocation of resources to be used and enjoyed by its immediate cohort. Each can reflect tradition and locality while fitting within and contributing to a wider network committed to broad and affordable public access, fundamentally open and ungated.
“Networked” means that place will be an augmented reality that can be detached from spatial and temporal moorings, accessed by anyone, from anywhere, at any time. This new reality is the norm, not the exception—the expectation of all formal discourse. Informality will continue, a parallel, individual discourse that’s only loosely documented, if at all. (Hence the perennial importance of researcher’s notebooks and students’ lecture notes to reconstruct some parts of it in forms that can be shared.) The pandemic made sharing more important. The informal became a relevant precedent for formal discourse. This has implications for place.
One implication is that place is situated now within the augmented reality in which most of us currently live and work. The pandemic more or less inverted its traditional hierarchy, with our connective devices becoming the locus of our interactions, interspersed with brief forays into the truly local or, conversely, with retreats to places truly distant. With considerable relief, we resume a wary relationship with all the places the pandemic walled off. But it taught us to see those places as optional: potentially desirable for what they offer, but no longer mandatory.
The desire to experience real places was heightened in the pandemic by our memories of what we missed. What we didn’t miss were the mandates that came along with many of them: the 8:00 a.m. introductory class; the rush-hour commute to places everyone finds inconvenient. It no longer holds to present them as unavoidable. We know better. Better to stoke our desires.
Part of place’s augmentation is to let people unpack and examine the layered history of what surrounds them, then add their own liberating chapters. The pandemic reminded us of the malleability of most buildings and settings, their potential to find entirely new lives.
Before the pandemic, campuses and districts alike were shifting steadily toward a richer mix of activities. The pandemic showed people the possibility and desirability of achieving this at a local level. Part of place’s augmentation is to let people unpack and examine the layered history of what surrounds them, then add their own liberating chapters. The pandemic reminded us of the malleability of most buildings and settings, their potential to find entirely new lives. It also reminded us of the malleability of time, how much of life is potentially asynchronous.
Scaling up by addition or replacement is of course one aspect of such transformation. Both are under way at U.C. Berkeley, but these activities lead to the question: What’s the aim? The main takeaway from what we’ve just gone through is the importance of opening out to the future. A campus like U.C. Berkeley’s—conceived early on as a park with loose precincts and porous edges—is one framework for constant evolution. Two decades into this networked century, whatever we build or renovate needs to be understood as a comparable framework, a place within an augmented reality that will continually reshape why it’s desirable to be there.
Featured image: The Lower Sproul Redevelopment and Student Center, at UCBerkeley, was a student based initiative that called for recasting the existing facilities at Lower Sproul Plaza into a revitalized and state-of-the-art facility. Designed by Moore Ruble Yudell. Image via MRY.