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.