During the 1970s, I couldn’t have told you what an urbanist was. Perhaps someone who studied the gum stuck on the bottom of park benches. Or maybe someone who documented the different types of sewer manhole lids. I had no idea.
But I knew I loved living near the University of California campus in Berkeley. Having most of my classes only a couple of blocks away. Wandering the weirdness of Telegraph Avenue whenever I wished. Ambling to the baseball field to do physics homework while watching the Golden Bears play a Pac-10 foe. Finding a quiet place along Strawberry Creek to open a good book.
On nights when cooking ambitions were low, walking a block to the Chinese restaurant where I learned to love won ton soup. After classes on Fridays, going with classmates to a pizza shop where the waitress knew us well enough to give us the slices of pizza and pitchers of beer that others had left unfinished. (Hey, we were college students.)
One winter term, subscribing to the San Francisco Symphony with a roommate, riding BART to and from the old War Memorial Symphony Hall, and returning across the campus to our apartment in the late evening hours, enthralled by the fog-shrouded Campanile.
And leaving my car in the garage, untouched, for a week at a time.
I may not have known the term, but I was falling in love with the urban lifestyle.
Thus, when a reader posted a link to “The 50 Most Beautiful Urban College Campuses”, I followed the link with enthusiasm. The Cal campus had to be near the top. The list would be nonsense otherwise.
Reviewing the criteria, location in a city of at least 100,000 people, international acclaim, notable features, botanical gardens, and student enjoyment, I could see that the test was set up for Cal to excel.
Starting with #50, I began seeing old friends. The University of the Pacific at #49, a fine campus with an intriguing history, even if its host city of Stockton has issues.
Harvard at #31, an academic powerhouse in a very walkable setting, although the range of architecture and landscaping doesn’t match the depth and texture of the Cal campus.
Vanderbilt at #16, another academic star with stellar architecture, although I find the campus too accommodating to cars, preferring the Cal layout where cars feel like the interlopers among the pedestrians and bicyclists.
Santa Clara at #14, with its rhythmic earth-toned buildings and vine-covered walkways.
The University of Washington at #11, with its soaring collegiate gothic buildings in brick and its setting along Lake Washington, a campus I learned to love during my years in Seattle.
Stanford at #3, which triggered the first bit of head-scratching. A very walkable campus with exceptional architecture, but a place where too many students and faculty arrive by car to truly be considered an urban campus. On the other hand, if Stanford is #3, then Cal had to be #1 or #2, right?
Wrong. Cal was left off the list completely. It was an egregious blunder. The writer is lucky that the website on which he posts doesn’t allow comments. I’m sure that many would have complained about their particular favorite being omitted, but none of the omissions would have been as absurd as Cal.
Luckily, I don’t need validation from an internet writer with a poor sense of quality control. I have my memories of my time at Cal and my regular visits ever since. Plus, I have the other urban campuses that I’ve had the good fortune to visit. So I’ve begun to develop my own list of favorite urban schools.
Iowa State where I first realized the collegiate urbanism was a distinctive and stable type of urbanism.
The University of Pittsburgh with its soaring Cathedral of Learning.
West Virginia University with its grand Woodburn Hall, where the interface between the campus and the host city of Morgantown is complicated but likely enhanced by the steep West Virginia terrain.
Furthermore, I’ll be able to expand my collegiate urbanism exposure this summer. Traveling with my regular summer traveling companions, seen wandering aimlessly in the Cathedral of Learning photo, we’ll tour the South, looking for minor league baseball, distinctive brewpubs, and good barbecue. And, because they’re willing to humor me in the hours before beer is socially acceptable, we’ll even visit a few urban hotspots.
Even with its fatal flaw, the 50 Most Beautiful list suggests Tulane University in New Orleans, Rhodes College in Memphis, and Belmont College in Nashville, all of which are on travel route. Also, a return visit to Vanderbilt seems reasonable.
If all goes well, I’ll have new college urbanism insights to share before the summer is over, while also being several steps closer to have my own Top Urban Campuses list. I won’t promise that Cal will be in the top spot on that list, but it will be hard to displace the Berkeley campus.
(By the way, Newsweek also has a list of the 25 Most Desirable Urban Schools, a list in which Cal is rightfully included.)
In the course of recently writing about alternative locations for the second SMART station in Petaluma, I offered an unconventional possibility. To my surprise, a few folks have rallied to support the idea. I don’t think we’re anywhere near a critical mass, but I’ll again write about the idea in my next post to see how deep the support might be.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)