Introduction to Placemaking
The environments in which we develop and learn are often more active factors in the way we develop and learn than we initially imagine. The university as a physical place of learning has a lot of merit yet is becoming more critiqued, especially as the growth of online learning inherently places pressures on the on-campus experience. Will we continue to need physical campuses when we can instead learn online? This question has been the spark of numerous debates, opinion pieces, and research proposals. What makes a physical university a place of learning?
Within the higher education environments literature, the concept of placemaking helps answer the above question. “Placemaking is about the creation, transformation, maintenance, and renovation of places we inhabit (Schneekloth & Shibley, 1995).” These places often include the “buildings, landscapes, and circulation systems…” that we act upon and are acted upon daily. The question that guides this piece is how does Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, use placemaking to establish itself as a place of learning that aligns with the values it puts forth? As we dive into this question, we must first examine the vision and mission of this institution of learning.
Carnegie Mellon University Vision and Mission Statements
The above vision and mission statements mainly focus on the following principles that CMU hopes that their education fosters in each student: transformation, research, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Environmentally, they claim to “[create] a collaborative environment open to the free exchange of ideas” where the above principles can flourish. Lastly, and still speaking to their physical environment, they hope to “[engage] with partners outside the traditional border of the university campus.” This may look like cross-university partnerships, partnerships with organizations and events such as the Tony Awards®, and even more locally, engaging with City of Pittsburgh. Though this project, I will next examine five pieces of evidence I collected where I found CMU to uphold and ignore aspects of placemaking as it relates to their vision and mission statements.
For the past few years and in alignment with their 2025 Strategic Plan ‘Ecology of Infrastructure’ section, Carnegie Mellon has been investing their resources into creating new learning and living centers on campus. The Tepper Quad, expected to be open by May 2018, will host “a cutting edge technology-enhanced learning center, a new home for CMU’s Tepper School of Business, a new visitor center, and collaboration, meeting, dining, and fitness spaces for use by the entire university community.” As a former undergraduate student from 2012-2016, CMU was consistently in a building and rebuilding period, closing off parts of campus for a short time to re-open with enhanced spaces and up-to-date technology.
Investing in campus spaces does not only mean building new ones. An important aspect of placemaking is the renovation and maintenance of spaces that are currently utilized. The introduction of the Makerspaces in the Morewood Gardens residence hall not only transforms these study spaces but also ties into Carnegie Mellon’s goal to promote innovation and collaborative problem-solving not only in the classroom. These 24/7 accessible spaces include power drills and soldering equipment, dress forms for making and displaying clothing, and a laser cutter.
Evidence #3 and Evidence #4
The expansion of the Cohon University Center, completed in May 2016, included the incorporation of a new fitness facility on the first and second floors as well as a new study space, aptly named the Collaborative Commons, and a graduate student lounge on the third floor. By developing more spaces for both personal health and well-being and more study spaces, both requests by the larger student body, the university is not only saying that student voice matters in the creation and renovation of spaces, but also shows it.
When walking past the ArtPark during this project (and for the thousandth time since I enrolled at CMU), I tried to remember the last time that it was used for a performance art piece as intended. Since my attendance at the institution, I believe I saw one demonstration hosted in this space. As further evidenced by the lack of updates on the ArtPark page on the CMU website (as of September 2017), a critical view of the lack of maintenance of this space can be seen as a lack of university importance for what this space means – the importance of public art on/near campus property. However, as a university well-known for their School of Drama and overarching College of Fine Arts, it’s more than likely that the ArtPark has dropped down the list of priorities when it comes to promoting artistic expression. In fact, The Frame Gallery on Margaret Morrison street has been steadily increasing in the number of shows they’ve hosted and attendance at these shows. The importance of public art and artistic expression is not unimportant, yet this function “outside the traditional border of the university campus” is does not seem to be well-attended right on the border of the university.
Overall, Carnegie Mellon’s focus on innovation, student spaces for personal health and well-being, and spaces for research are highly supported by the creation of new buildings, renovations of the centralized Cohon University Center, and the focus on making these updates with the student voices and needs in mind. There may be more to be desired in landscapes such as the deserted ArtPark but I am hopeful through the 2025 Strategic Plan, specifically where the development of the ACTIVATE program seeks to “create spaces, structures, and resources for interdisciplinary research and teaching that lead to some form of social change and/or raise awareness on topics such as immigration, public health, sustainability… among others” is detailed, that these renovations will continue to uphold and honor the vision and mission of this institution. With this said, I do believe that this physical university is working to maintain their functionalities, is aligning with their values and goals, and are successful in embedding these values onto their students and alumni.
Strange, C.C. & Banning, J.H. (2015). Designing for Learning: Creating campus environments for student success (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
This post is based on an assignment for the Spring 2017 section of ‘Higher Education Environments, Cultures, Students’ taught by Dr. Stacy A. Jacob at Slippery Rock University. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @stacyajacob.
Header photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash 📸