A School of Architecture class taught by Lucien Steil, “America’s Towns & Cities,” considered South Bend’s potential development as a college town by studying 11 successful U.S. college towns. Steil and some students presented their findings to some 50 community residents and officials on May 15 at the Studebaker National Museum.
College towns, a uniquely American development unlike Europe’s university cities, combine the comfortable features of small-town life with the cosmopolitan features of big cities, Steil said, a potential model for 21st-century urbanism.
“The college or university and the culture it creates exert a dominant influence over the character of the college town,” he said, referring to “The American College Town” by Blake Gumprecht, which identified 305 such towns in 2000.
Typically, the school’s enrollment is 20 percent of the town’s population, the urbanized population is less than 350,000, and average age is about 30. South Bend is in the range of those numbers.
“You have people walking, you have people driving, you have public transportation and private transportation,” he said, showing images of successful college towns such as Charlottesville, Va., Bloomington, Ind., and Berkeley, Calif. “The street is not monopolized by the car. The street is shared in a very equal way.”
One major difference in South Bend is the relatively small fraction of undergraduates who live off campus. In Athens, Ga., more than 80 percent of the University of Georgia’s undergraduate students have off-campus housing, but only 30 percent of Notre Dame’s undergraduates live off campus, mostly in homes south of campus.
“There’s a little bit more integration as far as residential goes,” said student Patrick Hess, adding that in most college towns two-thirds to three-fourths of undergraduates live off-campus. Other students who developed the study were Trevor Dorn, Alex Marsh, Eric Dizarich, Lauren McGrath, Carli Fernandez, Breck Ashdown, Joshua Shearin, Shannon McGoldrick, Ted Korolys and Mary Kate Nelson.
Steil said South Bend has the potential to create the walkability, diversity, mixed-use development, public transportation, distinctive buildings and ample public spaces of a thriving college town. Among other things, he said student and faculty housing downtown could accelerate the change.
“South Bend is beautiful,” he said, showing river-focused pictures of the city. “It looks like a great college town. Imagine people having parties, dining out, hanging around. The setting is really wonderful.”
The University has become the city’s largest employer, a far cry from South Bend’s manufacturing heyday when Notre Dame was secluded in a pastoral, monastic setting—a greenbelt of golf course, woods and playing fields that still somewhat buffers the campus from the city.
“There doesn’t seem to be a kind of clear, understandable connector,” Steil said, adding that the success of Eddy Street Commons suggests a way to link the campus and downtown—micro-developments with their own character that could provide a variety of interesting routes between them for people who walk, bike or use public transportation.
In Portland, for example, “you have an area that looks very much like Harter Heights,” Steil said. “They started putting shops on the ground floor and living on the upper floor. The street has gained in activity.”
Increased student awareness of South Bend’s amenities, including their access to free rides on Transpo, could also increase connections, he said.
Steil showed a picture of a crowded Notre Dame parking lot during tailgating and suggested it demonstrates the desire for urban living: “I say why can’t they do this downtown? Why do people complain about density—about having crowds—when they really enjoy it?”