Special Commentary: Some university public spaces need a transformation

by Tim Briggs

The University has ambitious plans for the future of the San Diego State campus.  San Diego voters will be asked to approve a ballot initiative authorizing the sale of the former Qualcomm Stadium site to SDSU in November.  If the initiative passes, SDSU plans to develop “SDSU West” as a riverfront campus with graduate research facilities, a stadium, market-rate housing and retail.

While SDSU West represents a complete re-envisioning of the future of the campus, recent development  reveals that SDSU is transitioning from an auto-oriented campus to a more walkable, urban environment.  A new residence hall is currently under construction in the former parking lot next to Chapultepec Hall, and parking on College Avenue was converted into a mid-rise retail and student housing complex.

New buildings such as the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union and South Campus Plaza have added essential dining, housing and activity space on campus, but they also include courtyards and plazas for students to gather.  These public spaces can be a vital part of campus life, fulfilling the need for relaxation or engagement with other students. As the university continues to add new buildings to better serve students, we must ask ourselves if the campus is meeting students needs by providing great public spaces.

We must ask ourselves, how well are our public spaces working?  The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William Whyte offers criteria for examining public spaces.  He advocates that plazas and courtyards include ample sittable space, natural elements like sun, trees and water, food, and a strong relationship to the street.

The Goldberg Courtyard in the Aztec Student Union satisfies all of these elements.  Movable chairs, broad ledges and steps provide plenty of places to sit and enjoy the sun. Most significantly, the courtyard embraces the street, or in this case, the flow of foot traffic through campus.  Rather than being closed off from pedestrian flows, the courtyard is open to the movement of students between the pedestrian bridge and the rest of the university, creating a constant buzz of activity. The courtyard is one of the best places on campus to sit and people watch, a telling sign of its success as a public space.

Adjacent to the Union, the open space at South Campus Plaza tells a different story.  While providing sittable space, exposure to the sun and trees, the plaza is mostly empty.

Yet, there was one area of South Campus Plaza that does entice people to stop and sit for a while.  The other users of the plaza could all be found sitting on a ledge facing the steady flow of pedestrian traffic along College Avenue.  This is not a coincidence. Whyte tells us that the presence of other people is what attracts people to a place. So it is no surprise that people chose to sit in the one place where they could watch students moving to and from campus as opposed to the empty space in the middle of the plaza.

These spaces teach lessons about how to improve public spaces on the SDSU campus. By providing plentiful seating and considering natural elements, the Goldberg Courtyard and South Campus Plaza offer a pleasant setting to pass time.  But, the design of public spaces must also take into account surrounding activity to draw in as much activity as possible. Existing spaces are not doomed though — they can be programmed to generate new activity. Food trucks, or better yet student-run carts, in the empty space within South Campus Plaza can transform the area.

It is clear that the SDSU campus is changing.  Whether SDSU continues to build up Montezuma Mesa or expand into Mission Valley, public spaces will play an important role in how well the campus meets the needs of students.  By engaging in a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to public spaces on campus, my hope is that we can change it for the better.

Tim Briggs is a graduate student in the Master’s of City Planning program where he is currently engaged in the study of public spaces. Connect with him at timothypaulbriggs@gmail.com