Planning for the Campus and the Community in Context: Turning Town and Gown Inside-Out

by Ronald R. Thomas

Most campus master planning efforts seek to find ways to effectively express the mission of an institution in the physical environment of its campus: they generally move from the inside out. Our planning process at Trinity College took a somewhat different course. The extraordinary conditions that Trinity faced in our neighborhood caused us to consider the issue first from the outside looking in, and then again from the inside looking out. Trinity’s mission statement declares that a Trinity education seeks to "foster critical thinking, free the mind of parochialism and prejudice, and prepare students to lead examined lives that are personally satisfying, civically responsible, and socially useful." As we approached the formulation of a master plan for our campus, these aims required us to consider what a civically responsible and socially useful campus plan might look like, one that would ensure that these values were written inside and out: not only in our bulletin, but in our brick and mortar, in our landscape design, and in the places where our campus meets our neighborhood. The conditions outside the campus told us quite clearly how we might accomplish that goal.

The neighborhood initiative that we at Trinity College launched in the South End of Hartford in 1997 was the first manifestation of that process. It was nothing less than an effort to bridge the gap between two worlds. Trinity, a 175-year-old private college blessed with significant financial and intellectual resources, was located in a neighborhood largely deprived of these benefits—a city that the most recent census confirmed was the poorest city in the richest state in the nation. With wrought iron fences marking our boundaries and increased security patrols at our perimeter to keep the campus safe, the College had begun to take on the aspect of an armed camp. As a scholar of the Victorian novel, it is difficult for me to think of this moment in our institution’s history without hearing the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s famous historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We at Trinity quickly came to understand that we were essentially living in two cities at once, and that we had to turn our master planning process—and our vision for our institution—inside out. This was a case in which the campus planning process forced us to reexamine and redefine our mission and essentially to reinvent our institution. We came to understand that we needed not only to be in the city of Hartford, but to be of it. We realized that any responsible reading of our circumstances and of our mission required that we step out of our ivory towers and into the streets of our city. If we were to succeed, it would be by investing our intellectual property in our neighborhood and, at the same time, by rebuilding our campus with a vision that addressed the challenges of our urban location and took advantage of its opportunities.

Like many planning exercises, ours emerged not only from a vision for what should be, but also and increasingly out of an equally compelling understanding of what was—conditions that were in themselves unacceptable and that were also threatening our viability as an institution. While Trinity has from the beginning been located in an urban setting, you would never know that if you were to read our recruitment literature from the 1980s or early 1990s. You might think we were Middlebury College set in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Williams College or Amherst tucked away in the Berkshires, or Colby College or Bowdoin somewhere in the wilderness of Maine. These outstanding residential liberal arts colleges have historically been Trinity’s greatest competitors for students, and we were in many ways just like them. Our stately gothic quadrangles perched on the highest point in Hartford County, with large open green spaces overlooking the Connecticut River valley, resembled the best of those campuses. But in other ways, we were not like them at all; and what we came to realize was that we shouldn’t be, either. The secret to our success would be in emphasizing our differences from them rather than pretending there were none.

Two cities—the city inside the gates and the city outside. Many parents and prospects never made it inside to their admission interviews, but instead returned to the interstate before passing through our wrought-iron fences to head up to the greener pastures of Massachusetts and Vermont once they got a look at our neighborhood. Our applicant pool and yield rates continued to decline. Alumni pride in the institution (and support for it) was waning. We were being defined by our environment in ways that were costly on a number of fronts.

About to commence a campus master planning process and needing to site a new library and new residence halls, we realized we had to expand our vision beyond mere site planning for these and other urgent capital projects. We had to think more holistically about the entire campus context, the vehicular and pedestrian approaches to the College, the economic and institutional health of the area, and the broader educational and residential environments in which we were situated. We also had to rethink some first principles of the institution. We had to begin to think from the outside in, that is to say, as well as from the inside out. In order to help define our circumstances rather than being defined by them, our search for a master planning team ended with our hiring of not one master planning firm but three—Ken Greenberg of Urban Strategies in Toronto to study the challenges and opportunities of our urban identity and context, William Rawn Associates of Boston to advise us on developing an urban architectural style that would respond to our traditional collegiate gothic in a contemporary idiom, and Cooper Robertson Partners of New York to head up the team and create a master plan for the campus that would help shape and be shaped by the efforts we were making in our neighborhood.

Conceptually, and in principle, moreover, we recognized that as a college dedicated to the ideals and values of liberal learning, we were faced with a particularly dramatic version of the contradictions inherent in the idea of “intellectual property” as entailing both intellectual and material characteristics. We were also confronted with the moral implications of the central concerns of private higher education: what should be the proper relationship between responsible scholarship and responsible citizenship? Moreover, as a nonprofit business that depended heavily on tuition revenues to operate, we also faced growing concerns among our primary markets about the security and attractiveness of our campus property: in our urban setting, how could we be good and welcoming neighbors and maintain a safe and secure campus? Our challenge was to engage these tough questions in our campus plan. Our strategy was to convert what was widely regarded as our greatest liability—our location, our place, our city—into our greatest asset. We set out to make the worst of locations into the best of locations, that is to say; and to do so through the proper investment of our intellectual property.

This is where our campus planning began to inform our strategic planning—our broader understanding of our fundamental mission as an institution. We were determined to make a virtue of our circumstances to be—in design and in fact—the great liberal arts college in a city. From a principled point of view, we would make the question about the relationship between the pursuit of truth and the quest for justice the defining mission of the institution. We would challenge the assumption that good scholarship and good citizenship were separate enterprises. We would take seriously John Dewey’s claim that education rightly understood was not preparation for future living but an engagement with the process of living itself. From a market point of view, this enabled us to distinguish ourselves from our competition rather than to pretend we were just like them. The experience of engaging with the process of living and learning at Trinity, we were determined, would be unlike that available anywhere else.

We set out to renew our neighborhood from within by beginning with the fundamental qualities of the academy: a physical place that values the intellect and provides education to sustain and develop the total person. We began to actively reflect upon how we were implementing that mission, and proceeded to renew our campus from the outside in—implementing, for example, a two-year general education curriculum called the Cities Program, creating a Center for Neighborhoods to collect data and advocate for neighborhood initiatives, and expanding our community learning and student internship programs in the state legislature, City Hall, private corporations, and local theatrical and artistic organizations.

On the outside, everyone knew that the quality of the public school system in our neighborhood was not what it needed to be in both physical and intellectual terms. Therefore, we set about responding to this need by building a community of learning with bricks and mortar, as well as more “virtually,” with our own expertise as educators and our technological capabilities with information technology. In addition to assembling a team of talented architects to produce a set of state-of-the-art educational facilities on our own campus, we have, with the aid of community partners and grants from public agencies and private foundations and corporations, set about creating “a smart neighborhood” on the web and on the ground—spanning pre-kindergarten, high school, and adult education, along with a range of programs and services aimed at increasing home ownership and economic opportunity.

The centerpiece of this effort is what has now become a national model for public education and public/private partnership: the Learning Corridor, a 16-acre site directly across the street from our campus consisting of four magnet schools and other educational facilities. In the autumn of 2000, in a remarkable achievement of public and private cooperation, an impressive new four-school campus opened its doors directly across from our own campus. The Learning Corridor consists of a public Montessori school, a public middle school, a science and technology resource center at the high school level, and the Hartford Academy for the Arts, which includes a professional quality theater and dance studios.

These new schools join a cyber-cafe, staffed by Trinity technology resource specialists, offering instruction to local churches, businesses, non-profit organizations, families, and individuals on using the internet, creating web pages, and accessing information on-line. Those who successfully complete the course can qualify for a free personal computer, repaired and recycled in the basement and contributed by local businesses, like Trinity. A few yards away is the new Boys and Girls Club we built with a gift from an alumnus and opened a year earlier, the first such club located on a college campus and staffed by student volunteers, serving young people and adults outside the traditional framework of public education. Those facilities are accompanied by a Center for Families we have opened with our partners from the nearby Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and a grant from the Aetna Foundation, a service occupying a new facility on the site as well. As the last piece of this first phase of community development, we are now planning to build a community sports arena on the site of an abandoned strip mall just across from campus and down the street from the Boys and Girls Club, a facility that will offer the community hockey and ice skating, basketball & tennis camps, and also serve as the home to Trinity’s men’s and women’s varsity hockey teams.

The entire complex has been dubbed “the pride of Hartford” by the local newspaper at its official opening in the Fall of 2000, has been heralded in national media coverage as a national model for urban engagement and public private partnerships (in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many educational publications), and has been the subject of a PBS program produced by the American Architectural Foundation that aired nationwide last spring. We have been recognized by Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Foundation as the first “College of Promise” in the nation for our efforts, and have been awarded national prizes from SBC for the Trinfo Café and from American Mutual for the Boys and Girls Club project. Just six years ago, the site for all these buildings comprised a shameful monument to urban blight and decay at the front door of our great campus. That site has now become the proud symbol of hope for the rebirth of this historic city and a sign of Trinity’s intentions to be a good neighbor and a responsible citizen. The courage of Trinity’s trustees to invest $6 million in this project succeeded in leveraging over $175 million in additional investments from our neighborhood partners, private corporations, foundations, and state, local, and federal funds. That same investment also directly resulted in private donations and foundation grants to Trinity of more than $10 million, and many more gifts that are an indirect affirmation of the leadership we have taken in our community.

Every planning exercise presents a different set of challenges to consider, a different array of opportunities to seize, and a different series of existing conditions to address. We started on the outside, because we had to. Then, informed by the vision of an institution invested in its context, we turned to the inside, and addressed the critical strategic issues involving the master plan for the campus itself. Our challenge was to do more than simply add a series of new buildings to the best of Trinity’s historic collegiate gothic architecture: it was to essentially turn the campus itself inside out by complementing the inward-looking orientation fashioned around the traditional cloistered quadrangle of the original campus plan with an outward-looking engagement with our city and the world—at once secure and accessible—a plan that reflected our new understanding of our place and our mission.

Planning for our campus development proceeded alongside of (and was informed by) the improvements to our immediate neighborhood and its infrastructure that we spearheaded with our community partners. When we turned our attention to the campus plan, we first articulated a set of fundamental principles that were intended to ensure that the plan would be responsive to our community initiative: (1) to plan and produce a physical environment and facilities offering an attractive, safe, and inspirational setting for living and learning; (2) to recapture in contemporary form the high design standards of Trinity's architectural and landscape heritage in planning new building projects and renovations; (3) to recognize and take full advantage of the importance of the physical environment for delivering the finest possible residential liberal arts education; (4) to collaborate effectively with our own neighborhood and city in developing a supportive campus community beyond the bounds of our immediate campus that makes the most of Trinity's urban setting.

These principles informed each project we approached. As we secured the neighborhood with the Learning Corridor and other community projects, we relinquished an approach to security that was based on separation and encouraged one founded on responsible cooperation. We began to literally tear down the fences that had been erected around portions of the campus and planned additional vehicular and pedestrian entrances to create a more welcoming sense of collaboration in both directions. We defined the edges of campus more clearly—with lighting, signage, and plantings—and enhanced the way finding and lighting around campus for clarity, consistency, attractiveness, and safety. We emphasized the boundaries, but made them permeable rather than forbidding. We wanted the campus to be viewed as a welcoming resource for the community, and the community to function in the same way for our students.

Architectural program and design expressed this same principle. The $35-million Library and Information Technology Center we built, for example, was designed to have a front door on the west, facing the inner quadrangle, and another on the east, facing the public street. In the past, college building projects had become accustomed to placing a service entrance or a blank façade toward the street, literally turning our backs on the community and directing all the vitality of campus life inward. To reverse that trend, we took the same double-front-door approach to our Admissions and Career Services Center, which presents equally welcoming and impressive entrances on the east and west faces, one opening to the major visitor entrance to campus, and the other overlooking our playing fields with the Learning Corridor, the Boys and Girls Club, and the city skyline beyond. Taking advantage of a bluff on the site and joining the two entrances (which grade causes to be separated by two stories) is a grand central staircase, fully surrounded by glass that displays the campus as a beautiful and secure urban park, alive with a campus life and very much oriented toward the community and the city.

Among the most important products of our master planning process is not a building, but the strategic establishment of what William Rawn called “a culture of design” for the campus. Responsibility for achieving that goal was vested in the newly-formed Design Review Committee, charged with advising the president on building priorities, architectural selection, siting, and design philosophy, and ensuring implementation of the principles of the master plan. The committee draws representatives from across campus—trustees, administrators, faculty, students, and the community. In collaboration with the master planning team, the Design Review Committee established an approach to new campus architecture consistent with our first principles: we would design new buildings that would respond to the extraordinary materiality, quality, and character of William Burges’s historic Long Walk quadrangle at the center of campus, one of the finest examples of collegiate gothic in the world. But new buildings would also look like new buildings, reflecting the best in architectural design of this moment and responsive to Trinity’s urban location and vision as the great residential liberal arts college in the city.

By the end of 2002-03, we will have completed seven of the eight projects identified as first-phase priorities by the Campus Master Plan, including three new residence halls, the new Admissions and Career Services Center; three new cultural houses, the redesign and reconstruction of Vernon Street (once a city street that formed the edge of campus and now its central artery), new athletic fields and facilities, the new Library and Information Technology Center; and three major landscape projects. In addition to receiving six design awards for these projects already, Trinity has been honored for our campus planning and development efforts by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The American Institute of Architects (AIA) for one of four “integrated campus plans” in the nation.

Our turning of the planning process inside-out, first looking from the outside in and then from the inside out, has paid dividends in a number of ways. On the inside, the result of all our planning and building, inside and out, is that we have now registered five consecutive years of record-breaking admissions figures, with over 5,500 applications for 550 positions in an entering class. Our admit rate is currently at 29% rather than the 60% of eight years ago, now among the top ten national liberal arts colleges in the country. The test-scores of our entering classes have grown higher and higher with each entering class, and Trinity has ceased to be a “back-up school”: the number of enrolled students for whom Trinity is a first-choice school is now around 80%. Our closest competitors are no longer Middlebury, Colby, and Hamilton, but other urban institutions—Yale, Columbia, Brown, NYU, Boston College, and Georgetown. We are also attracting a different profile of candidates—students who want to be in cities and engage in community service and urban outreach. Our alumni are proud of the work their institution is doing, giving at an impressive 53% participation rate, up from the lower forties just eight years ago. And our neighbors now see us as partners working with them to better the neighborhood, rather than as an occupying force set up on the hill and surrounded by wrought-iron fences.

A key element in this process has been that these initiatives were firmly rooted in the intellectual properties of Trinity as a liberal arts college. Equally important, however, has been our development of a new vision of our mission as a liberal arts college in a city, recognizing that as educational leaders we are responsible curators of our civic, cultural, and artistic heritage. For Trinity, all this began with a master planning process, a plan that grew out of our mission and then caused us to revisit that mission and redefine it in a way that made us understand the dynamic relationship between town and gown, between inside and outside.