I love the University of Minnesota. With 50,000 students plus large contingents and staff, it is a city within a city, and one remarkably distinct from the rest of the Twin Cities. There’s a tremendous degree of pedestrian activity each day, particularly between class periods. The better parts of campus are highly permeable, with small blocks, narrow streets, and a tight mesh of interconnecting sidewalks. The need to get around the large campus also bred the need for students to use bicycles, and the university is a big reason for Minneapolis’s bike culture. The most heavily-cycled streets in the city are on and near campus, not to mention the bike path on the double-decker Washington Avenue Bridge.
The campus sits astride the Mississippi River, along high bluffs, a striking contrast to downtown Minneapolis and Old St. Anthony which are barely more than a mile upriver. The river really does drop quite a bit as it passes over the remnants of Saint Anthony Falls, so the Washington Avenue Bridge rises high above the water. When students aren’t in a rush, they might pause on the way across to watch a river barge in the summer or simply to watch the formations of ice and foam that slip past slowly, belying the current beneath.
The campus has its own transit system, which carried about 3.9 million riders in 2009. The backbone of the small system is the Campus Connector route stretching about 5 miles from the West Bank in Minneapolis to the agricultural St. Paul campus, making use of a dedicated busway along the way. During the school year, buses come so frequently that it’s not worth publishing a schedule.
Northrop Mall is one of the grand spaces in Minneapolis, with a mix of walking paths, patches of grass, and plazas at either end. The mall is anchored at the north by Northrop Auditorium, while Coffman Union provides the southern terminus. Washington Avenue slices through campus just north of Coffman. That street used to be clogged with traffic, and pedestrian bridges have helped get students across the cut for several decades, dating back to the streetcar era.
Rails have returned to Washington Avenue with construction of the Green Line, also known as the Central Corridor. While big construction projects usually don’t do much for peace and quiet, adding the line required completely shutting down the street for two years. When it reopens soon, only buses will return, soon followed by the first Green Line test trains. Northrop Mall has long been an oasis for students looking for a place to kick back, but removing car traffic has made it an even more serene setting. Some noise will return once the transit mall begins operation, but in the quiet moments, the only noise will come from the ventilation systems of nearby buildings.
The university does have an outsized presence and influence, sometimes bulldozing entire city blocks to make way for expansion. Some areas are dominated by parking lots and ramps. On the main campus, there has been a rash of older structures being demolished. Sometimes when new buildings go in, they end up blocking old sidewalks, creating new barriers to movement. There’s also sometimes a thin line separating the stately, collegiate architecture and landscaping from similar designs that would seem more at home at a suburban business park.
A campus of this size is always changing. In my years as a student, there was constant construction all around campus. Old buildings were being restored, remodeled, and expanded, but also occasionally torn down. Some bad decisions will end up sticking with us, while others may soon meet the wrecking ball. It is a dynamic area full of interesting experiments as well as well-thought-out plans come to life. The University of Minnesota is definitely one of the best things about the Twin Cities.
From the Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan, pg. 80:
It is estimated that there are 15,000 bicyclists traveling throughout the city on an average spring, summer, or fall day. This number is closer to 4,000 in the winter months. Over 50% of bicyclists within the city are destined for the U of M and 25% of all bicyclists are destined for Downtown Minneapolis.
When I was selecting a graduate school to attend back in 2005, I had the opportunity to visit the U of M on two occasions. More than anything the campus architecture, especially the mall, is probably the primary reason I chose to relocate to Minnesota. Ironically, I spent much of my time in the Civil Engineering dungeon, which is likely the most unpleasant building on campus.
Ha. Reuben, we all reap what we sow.
I also love the U. I’ve been to a lot of college campuses across the country. I think sometimes people in MN and UMN students get envious of other places while not recognizing how truly great our own places are. I love that even though it’s in the middle of an urban area, it’s quiet and has plenty of green spaces (Mall, Knoll, River Flats – both of em, McNamara Plaza, plus tons of pockets of urban open spaces). I love the mix of old buildings (Eddy, Northrop, Pioneer Hall, Folwell), new but classic design (TCF Bank, BioMed building) and striking modern ones (McNamara). I love that our areas to live/eat aren’t focused in one main street (like many major colleges with a focal point) – we have Dinkytown, Seven Corners, Stadium Village, Prospect Park, Riverside, and St Paul. Speaking of, I love the St Paul campus and its beautiful landscaping. I love how the fact that we don’t have just one campus neighborhood means you get a mix of students and residents around campus. I love the UMN Marching Band. I love that the U is a 20 minute walk from many downtown attractions.
I could go on…
I wish the campus faced and engaged the river rather than showing its back to it. How grand would the Mall be if one side of it was along the river bluff?
My other big complaint about the U campus is how it ‘shows its back’ to the Cedar Riverside neighborhood on the West Bank. It basically surrounds the campus with parking lots and large unapproachable buildings. It’d be really nice to have a porous interface with the fascinating neighborhood next door. Really, the best part of the edge of campus is the really old section along Dinkytown (though Stadium Village isn’t half bad either).
The other thing your comment reminds me of is the wonderful lakeside patio at the UW Madison campus, where the school fronts the water with a great public space. The U of MN doesn’t really have anything like that. They missed the boat w/ the Cauffman Union and the Science and Technology building…
I’m sure there’s a bigger picture of it somewhere, but on page 13 of the campus master plan, there’s a picture of one of the plans for Northrop from back in the day:
It would have stepped down to the river in an awesome way but it kind of substitutes the Mall itself for having a large park where Coffman is.
Yeah the original master plan by Cass Gilbert (of the US Supreme Court and MN State Capitol design) had a really cool cascading mall to the river. His notion was to slowly continue down to the river. I think Coffman put an end to it when the U decided to expand the campus eastward along Washington. http://www.cassgilbertsociety.org/works/umn-mpls-campus-plan/
Sure would have been stately but maybe not as intimate to the water as Madison is.
I think the bigger reason the U doesn’t feel like it addresses the river (at least intimately like a few spots of Madison’s campus along the lake) is because its’ so high up the bluffs. There are very few spots they could have built a building that overlook the river in the first place. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate being able to play frisbee/football/etc on the flats, or that some buildings directly against the bluffs on the East Bank don’t have great views of the river. And my favorite 2 views of the skyline are on campus… the silver bridge across Washington and the bridge crossing the Dinky Ditch at 15th and 4th.
Fully agree with West Bank putting its back to Riverside. Though the freeway running right there doesn’t help things…