Campus planning advice for institutions with unused space (opinion)

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Across the country, college and university leaders are grappling with questions about how to adapt their campus facilities and plan for a post-pandemic future that may yet bring profound shifts. Even institutions that are on track to reopen and bring students back in 2021 must consider what the brick-and-mortar campus environment will look like as new and growing practices, such as distance learning, become more normalized.

Many campus leaders, for example, may find that a number of their campus spaces end up underutilized. Clearly, such a scenario presents a challenge, but it also offers a rare opportunity to rethink how institutional missions can evolve — and how institutions themselves can best survive and thrive.

For those colleges and universities, a successful long-term pandemic recovery may involve shifting gears and reimagining their campuses for alternative and complementary uses — notably, as community hubs and large-scale resource centers. Such an evolution in particular seems a natural one: as cornerstones of their surrounding communities, higher education institutions are in a distinct position to take on an expanded role, offering their resources in this time of need and beyond to help maintain or improve the quality of life and elevate the economic opportunities of the residents of surrounding areas.

In particular, college and universities have exciting opportunities to leverage existing resources to offer vital counseling and training services, to retool underused facilities as workspaces and childcare centers, and to use the campus as a space for public wellness and recreation. And all this can happen not just as an acute response to the challenges of COVID but also as an ongoing means of strengthening communities and filling gaps in local or regional services.

In some ways, the challenge of how to reimagine campus space is not a new one. As campus planners, we’ve already seen many institutions face headwinds related to falling enrollments over the past decade. In response, we’ve helped senior administrators as they’ve guided their institutions into new roles and 21st-century educational and economic modalities. Colleges and universities have become, as well as vehicles for learning, research centers, tech incubators, athletic powerhouses, corporate training grounds and arts and entertainment destinations.

The idea of broadening an institution’s scope of services is even more relevant in the current moment: as cornerstones of their surrounding communities, campuses are readily identifiable sites that can be activated for essential functions, creating an ecosystem that serves the daily needs of local populations all in one (relatively) geographically bound location. Colleges and universities are literally invested in their communities, often even to a greater degree than the federal government, and vice versa.

Now is a perfect time to survey the landscape and reimagine the campus once again. Here are several emerging possibilities for how these campus spaces can be further activated to offer resources to not only their students but other populations beyond them.

Co-Working and Corporate Partnerships

Excess campus facility space is well suited for flexible co-working uses. In the last five years or so, hotel chains and office space providers such as WeWork have offered start-ups, small firms and freelancers places to collaborate, innovate or write. With this past year’s COVID spikes and outbreaks in many cities, it might seem hard to imagine that people would be looking to campuses for this service in the immediate moment. But we have reason to believe that, over the longer term, this type of co-working use might take hold. That could be the case especially if remote work or hybrid models are here to stay and if any lag time occurs between the current acceleration of vaccinations and a return to pre-pandemic levels of on-campus enrollment.

If higher education leaders do confront a future scenario with fewer students on their campuses, student centers and other facilities present a great opportunity for the kind of work-friendly “third places” that are likely to become popular. We already know that many businesses will continue to rely on work-from-home models. Campus co-working sites are often closer to homes, schools, open spaces, vibrant populations and countless amenities. Plus, many institutions have modern facilities equipped to handle all different kinds of work, with cutting-edge IT systems and other supportive infrastructure. For companies looking to downsize their own office footprints — which corporations from Barclays to Google have stated publicly — unused teaching or common space might also present an opportunity for institutional partnerships, creating a potentially valuable revenue stream for colleges and universities.

Child Support and Daycare Services

Colleges and universities can also serve as centers for vital community services that often go overlooked. For instance, childcare facilities already exist on most campuses and have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, as they are often viewed as essential operations.

Looking ahead, with state governments making early childhood grants available, funding opportunities might increase, as well. And with the projected growth of hybrid K-12 school models that may test the limits of flexible scheduling when schools reopen, it also seems likely that the nature of many colleges — physically sited within their communities — will benefit parents who are also able to work on their campuses and therefore stay closer to their children during the workday.

Business Expertise and Counseling

Colleges and universities can also provide expert support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, which will be crucial as local businesses need more counseling and support than ever during the rebuilding and pandemic recovery process. The skills required to help a graduating student launch a business are similar to those that can help a local company get back on its feet during over coming months and years. Similarly, many business schools already provide free tax-filing support for surrounding communities — a set of services that they can broaden and scale up.

Equally important, colleges and universities understand the distinct needs of their particular neighborhood and municipality and can use their physical campuses to reduce the burdens that might otherwise come with accessing such services in disparate locations. For example, someone who needs financial counseling could drop their child off at a campus daycare facility, significantly reducing the strain of trying to balance childcare with work or important personal administration needs.

Workforce Partnerships and Retraining

The federal government is currently promoting large-scale infrastructure projects. Colleges and universities, a primary provider of advanced professional-level science, technology, engineering and manufacturing education — and the largest providers of continuing education — will be vital assets in retooling the country’s workforce. Given this potential for large-scale, government-funded public works initiatives, it may be important that any new institutional strategic planning efforts now consider how workforce training programs can be incorporated into existing facilities.

Many community colleges have already rethought their campuses as such laboratories, and companies looking for a workforce pipeline have often donated advanced manufacturing equipment to them. In fact, recent coverage in The New York Times highlights the success of workforce training programs at Broward College in Florida and also notes that Google has partnered with over 100 community colleges nationwide to offer career-based training.

Thinking long term, courting investment from large companies will help college and university leaders activate campus facilities and services to an even greater degree — creating opportunities for local or regional residents to receive new training and learn valuable skills, in the process filling any underutilized campus spaces and helping warrant the continued operation of resource-intensive facilities.

Community Wellness and Recreation

College campuses are also already equipped with outdoor spaces and gathering areas appropriate for social distancing — a crucial public health asset during the pandemic period and a challenge for many communities, especially in urban areas. Why think of those campuses as separate entities? They can be fantastic places to walk, run and bike, and they are also often regional recreation centers — offering public programs and public health guidance, equipment rentals, and training. Nationwide, hundreds of higher education institutions are in disadvantaged and disproportionately affected communities where accessible public space is otherwise limited. As people continue to seek outdoor and recreational space in the post-pandemic era, this is another clear area where underutilized campuses can fill a critical gap in services.

It is important to emphasize, of course, that these suggestions are not one-size-fits-all solutions, and that on their own, many institutions may not have the financial resources to transform their campuses in such ways — especially as they face further reductions in enrollment and student fees.

That offers an argument for targeting government support toward helping higher education allocate more resources toward community-based programming. The benefits of this economic support, in the form of a local, state or federal funding, could be cumulative, with the implementation of the initial programming sustaining and creating jobs (training staff, constructing new space), and then the resulting programs (such as daycare facilities, job training centers and small business support services) further bolstering the economy.

Ultimately, while every college and university will confront its own specific challenges now and into the future, reimagining the role of a campus can be a useful way to begin reactivating these spaces. It can also be a way to trial new ideas that can help insulate an institution against potential structural shifts in the higher education landscape — which may very well occur in different forms even after the pandemic.

Strong and healthy communities often depend on colleges and universities participating in local economies, and vice versa. Leveraging their extensive physical resources and intellectual capital in creative and outward-looking ways allows higher education leaders to expand on this important mission, strengthen the symbiotic relationship between the campus and surrounding area, and create a path through potential headwinds and toward continued success.



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