Sunday, November 15, 2009

Campuses have back yards too.

Though I had driven through the mid-southern boomtown of Nashville before in the past, this past weekend was the first time I had left the interstate to tour the city briefly. One of the first stops was the venerable, woodsy campus of Vanderbilt University, just a mile or so away from the city center. Much of the campus offered exactly what one might expect from an older urban academia: uniform, solid brick buildings with limestone Doric columns, well-maintained grassy quadrilaterals crisscrossed with foot paths, a generous tree canopy (at least in the summer), an alarming overpopulation of squirrels. Those more familiar with Vanderbilt can surely describe it better than I; those unfamiliar at least can conjure a facile image.

What took me by surprise was a chance encounter with this beast in the southern half of the campus:

And of course, this pole’s identical siblings stand approximately 250 feet away in either direction. It’s rare to see such a jarringly large utility line in the interior of a campus. In fact, it’s rare to see utilities on a campus at all—nearly all private schools are willing to front the cost to run the lines underground.

In many ways, the presence of overhead wires in urban settings distinguishes the US from most other developed countries. The American landscape is littered with them, even in relatively dense inner city neighborhoods. Only a few settings come to mind in the US where electric wires are not widely visible: downtowns usually employ buried cables, as do newer subdivisions built since the 1970s, and large parcels under single corporate ownership (such as a university). The comparative lower density of US cities no doubt necessitates much higher costs for burying wires than would be the case in, for instance, the Netherlands. Our population is spread over a significantly greater land area, and loosely translates to negative economies of scale in terms of the square footage of cable per person served, equating to higher costs in physical utility installation per person, whether as poles or undergrounded. However, overhead wires elicit other inefficiencies: they are far more likely to suffer power outages from fallen tree limbs or toppled poles after storms or heavy wind. Many urban utilities companies must pay for tree trimming on private lots to protect the cables from snapping, with costs most certainly passed down to the consumer. Utility easements grant them this privilege, resulting in roadside properties with funny-looking, lopsided trees.

Conversely, undergrounding cables never completely eliminates the possibility of power outages, and a severe outage on an underground system may be harder to access or repair. In addition, cities that engage in a fair amount of road alterations such as widening or storm sewer additions may find that underground cables are far easier and cheaper to maneuver around, while underground cables would cost a fortune to relocate. Regions with a high level of seismic activity also need to be conscious of the vulnerability of buried electrical cables. I have also read on occasion that the speed of electrical transmission across great distances is inferior on underground cables, thus explaining—beyond the sheer costs—why sparsely populated rural areas almost always depend on overhead cables. (My source on this last bit of information is questionable; perhaps an electrical engineer can confirm or contradict it.)

Arguments favoring and opposing overhead cables are clearly numerous, often leaving the investment decision at a stalemate, in which each location gets individual consideration. The one determinant in which buried cables always wins is aesthetics. Overhead cables are an unsightly blight on the landscape to most people—no doubt many commercial photographs of great vistas have had the power lines blotted out courtesy of Adobe Photoshop. So why did Vanderbilt choose not bury these lines that rest fully within the campus? My guess is the answer is quite simple—this is not a part of the campus that Vanderbilt leadership wants or expects most of the public to see.

In hindsight, I’m kicking myself for not taking more good photos of the campus, but the combination of what I did take and some campus maps should get the point across. The oldest part of the campus remains sequestered from the majority by busy 21st Avenue South:

This area (outlined in blue in the campus map below) is known as the Peabody Campus, because it originated as the George Peabody College for Teachers upon splitting from the University of Nashville in 1875. In 1979, it merged with Vanderbilt University and assumed the name Peabody College of Education and Human Development. While the majority of the top-ranked graduate school of education classes take place on the Peabody Campus, its buildings also host classes for undergraduates, administrative offices, as well as some dormitories. Its largest distinction is the strictly geometric layout of its buildings, somewhat visible in the photos as well as the campus map.

The distinctive origin design of the Peabody campus design becomes more evident when contrasted with the historic main campus of Vanderbilt to the northwest. Indicated by the red outline in the campus map, this section of “Old Vanderbilt” adopts a much more organic campus layout—looser and much less emphasis on perpendicularity than the Peabody Campus.

Apparently the biodiversity of this portion of campus has earned it the designation as a national arboretum. This section and the Peabody Campus receive the highest level of utility upgrades; not a single overhead cable is visible here.

The approximate spot where I took the original photo of the utility pole is indicated by the orange circle on the campus map. This area, and virtually everything to both the south and west of it, represents the preponderance of Vanderbilt’s expansions. Most of the university’s expansion began in the 1950s, and it shows. Whereas Peabody and the old Vanderbilt campus are almost completely pedestrianized, with the majority of academic buildings fronting foot trails, the newer portion of the campus reflects the more automobile dominating ethos of the time. Unfortunately the only photo I took that accurately demonstrates this is the first one on this blog post with the utility pole, but it at least hints at the widespread campus design typology of the second half of the twentieth century. The cars, parked perpendicular to the curb, enjoy dedicated parking along a right of way that does not function as a city street, nor is it purely a parking lot. These “campus roads” that weave their way through most universities of a reasonably size usually have two origins: they are formerly city roads that served a residential neighborhood, both of which (homes and road ROW) have been purchased and claimed by the university, giving the school the freedom to design traffic flow and parking to its own standards; they were integrated into the university’s own master plan and never existed as part of the public right of way, again giving the university almost unlimited freedom. In this case, I suspect these campus roads owe their current existence to the first of the two aforementioned scenarios. The brown lines I have traced on the campus map show an inchoate grid pattern that most likely formerly serviced private residences; many of the homes where either purchased or demolished by the university to make way for fraternities and sororities. The roads directly serving the Greek housing still maintain many of the characteristics of conventional rights of way, but one street (indicated by the brown line that terminates in the orange circle) looses its ROW character and becomes more of a logistical service route, with dedicated parking. This is also the point where the conventional urban grid breaks down and, instead of the roads defining the shape of parcels and the buildings that rest upon them, the building alignment seems to have dictated part of the trajectory of the road. I’ve included a few more photos below that show how this phenomenon influences the buildings in the new campus, provided from the Vanderbilt website.

Lupton Hall is one wing within a larger quad structure, but it rests on Vanderbilt Place (no doubt purchased by the university but with public access) and it features a separate vehicular drop-off point.

The Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life is a particularly new addition at the corner of Vanderbilt Place and 25th Avenue South. The off-street parking is marginally visible to the far left.

The need for 22,000 square feet of parking would have seemed unconscionable prior to the expansion, but by the time the Kensington Garage was built at the intersection of Kensington Place and 25th Avenue South, it critically served university staff and faculty as well as guests to a neighboring hotel.

Most likely my original photo featured a different perspective of this 1920s-era power house. The prominent smoke stack is an unlikely feature not commonly seen in most campuses. Interestingly, the campus website claims here that all house-run utilities are underground, which leads one to question why it would make such a claim when above ground facilities are plainly visible. Could it be that the power lines running through campus service other parts of the city and the City of Nashville simply needed to wind across parts of Vanderbilt campus?

Regardless of whether the utility placement is by-right or by easement, it clearly remains the underbelly of the institution—the mess of wires and gears that makes the place tick. Nearly every major campus has a portion like this—the section where aesthetics took a back seat to the convenience of parking, or vehicle unloading, or the necessity of a close electric substation. It would be lunacy for Vanderbilt’s admissions office to coordinate tours in this portion of the campus—the whole area feels like logistical roads for vehicle unloading, while the main entrances to the buildings themselves seems almost hidden. Like most urban development in the 1950s and subsequent decades, both the scale of the structures and the flow created by linear paths disfavor the pedestrian. The buildings might be generally close together and contiguous with the old campus—after all, students aren’t necessarily going to own cars and will still need access to the expansion sections of campus—but the planning seems far less cognizant of foot traffic than 19th century Vanderbilt, which is human scaled by necessity. The new campus seeks to accommodate both the car and the pedestrian, but it is axiomatic that only the pedestrian will make any sacrifices in this case. The result is sprawl, university style.

This dichotomy between old and may have little bearing on the overall success of the university, but the fact that campus facilities has made no effort to conceal those aggressive electric poles speaks much about the aesthetic stance the university takes to its new development. Most contemporary American cities are devoting an inordinate amount of resources to revitalizing their downtowns, largely because, no matter how much it may decentralize, the downtown remains the foremost location by which an outsider is going to form an impression of a city. Downtown is the city’s front door. Accordingly, old campus and Peabody are the front door of Vanderbilt—the images of walking tours, of postcards, of an officially dedicated arboretum. Some of the suburbs of metro Detroit are lovely—but the first images that come to mind when one thinks of Detroit is a decaying old city center from Robocop. I am not denigrating the development patterns and practices from the age of the automobile, but the positioning of the old historic center of downtowns and campuses demonstrates a perhaps unconscious preference for the way old walkable hubs look and how they accommodate visitors. Contemporary downtowns are increasingly adapting to a growing demand for building and street designs that engages the pedestrian. Most likely, subsequent development at Vanderbilt will follow the same pattern, eventually minimizing the back yard, no-man’s land feel that comprises a significant portion of the campus. And in time it may also impel the university to bury those power lines.


A Year at the River said...

A few years back at a conference on "cultural landscapes" a presenter talked about the importance of power lines and poles are as part of elements of industrial history and that they need to be evaluated and appreciated as historic components of landscape. I wasn't sure I bought the argument then, but your post makes me think about it again. Interesting.