Is MIT a Good Place to Live?
The University Campus as a Residential Environment

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  • Chapter 5. Conclusions and Strategies
    5.1 A Framework for Analyzing and Evaluating the Residential Campus
    5.2 The MIT Residential Experience
    5.3 Strategies for Future Development
    5.4 Further Considerations


    5.1 A Framework for Analyzing and Evaluating the Residential Campus

    In undertaking this study, I believed that there needed to be a framework for analyzing and evaluating the MIT campus from the perspective of residents. It was also my hope that after discussing this issue with residents themselves, and hearing how the campus affects their quality of life positively or negatively, I would be able to construct an abstract framework for the systematic evaluation of the campus. The following is a recommended system for analyzing and evaluating the campus as a residential environment, based on the information gathered in the course of this study.

    I have found one of the most revealing outcomes of this study to be the correlation between residents' own impressions of why a university has a residential function and the history of ideas that has shaped the development of the residential campus over time. History has shown that the creation of university residences is most often motivated by a need to provide housing that is affordable and convenient for students traveling away from home. These two ideas were also most prominent among residents' reasons why universities should provide residences. History has also shown that after universities establish housing for practical reasons, they tend to recognize that living together as part of a campus environment has an impact on the social development and overall learning experience of students. Residents correspondingly indicated that a sense of community and an immersive learning experience are important reasons for having a residential university, perhaps as important or not quite as important as convenience and cost. Over the history of MIT's development, increases in the provision of housing have generally been associated with changes in the MIT's national ``prestige'', and this is reflected in residents' observation that housing is necessary for a university to effectively compete with other universities for students. As a final example, the complicated situations faced by universities whose residential systems were designed to suit an ``in loco parentis'' function are reflected in residents' conflicted reactions towards the idea that a university residential system should be expected to control student behavior.

    Another revealing outcome of this study is the relationship between the eight categories of reasons for having a residential campus and residents' comments regarding the specific quality of the MIT campus. Most important topics of discussion can be represented in terms of one or more of the eight noted ``considerations''. In the discussion on food, residents complained about having to trade cost for convenience, as residents of the west campus were unsatisfied because they could either pay higher prices for food that is available at nearby locations or save money by traveling to inconvenient places such as the supermarket. Community was also an issue, as some residents supported community dining as a way to enhance community interaction, while other residents criticized community dining for it for its control over students' eating habits. In the discussion on residential location and activity centers, residents demonstrated how inconveniences in getting from one part of campus to the other has negative impacts on community interaction and collegiality, since it disconnects residents from each other, from the center of campus, and from academic uses. Residents also indicated that the overall feel of the campus, along with the lack of activity centers and open space, has negative effects on their own comfort and on the coherence of the area as an integrated ``campus''. Finally, residents made indirect references to the competition issue by comparing the residential experience at MIT with the residential experience at institutions that are comparable academically, such as Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale.

    Because these ``c-words'' seem to be useful in categorizing not only the reasons for having a residential university, but also in explaining the history of the residential university and criticizing the university campus as a residential environment, I am inclined to believe that this set of ideas may comprise a suitable framework for analyzing and evaluating the quality of the MIT residential environment. Therefore, I recommend that this list of considerations, with some modification, serve as a set of criteria to be used in evaluating campus development from a residential point of view. The modification I have made is the substitution of control for another c-word, choice, which is related to ``control'' (perhaps as its opposite), and seems to be a more appropriate ideal to consider based on information from the history and discussions.

    The following is a summary of what I have chosen to call, for now, the ``8C'' model of residential campus analysis. This summary is meant to define the criteria themselves and describe the relationship among them.

    Convenience and Cost. These two factors comprise the ``baseline'' of the framework. If university affiliates from outside the region of a university could easily find housing that is a walkable distance from campus, and pay for such housing at a low price, then university housing would probably be deemed unnecessary. Moreover, if university housing were not close to the other functions of a university, and if it were unaffordable or difficult to obtain, then it would probably serve no purpose. These criteria can be thought of broadly as the basic economic decisions that people make all the time, since, within the MIT context, time is more important than money. So in considering any kind of campus development that is meant to serve residents, particularly with regards to its location, the primary considerations should be to minimize the time and difficulty residents will have to endure, as well as minimizing the monetary costs. If these two basic criteria are not met, it becomes very difficult to achieve the rest.

    Community and Collegiality. The university is a setting in which people who have a common interest in learning can interact with each other and share ideas, and so the residential function of a university should provide opportunities for residents to interact with one another at all levels. In a broader sense, the university's residential function should allow for a maximum of interaction with the university at large in order to foster, as residents have proposed, a more ``immersive'' educational experience in which people are learning at all times. In order to achieve this level of interaction, it is important that the prior considerations are addressed. Wherever it is inconvenient or costly for people to travel or communicate, there will be fewer opportunities for interaction.

    Comfort and Coherence. After considering the campus from an economic and social perspective, it is important to ensure that the campus is designed in such a way that makes residents feel it is their home. All the uses of the campus, as well as the pathways connecting them, should provide a sense of physical and psychological safety and comfort. The campus should also be coherent as a residential environment, meaning that it has an integrated feel and an overall sense of identity. If addressed properly, the considerations of comfort and coherence can enhance a campus residential environment that is simply convenient and community-supporting by allowing people to take pride in their surroundings and encouraging people to venture out and interact with the form of the campus.

    Choice. If the preceding six criteria have been considered, it should not be difficult to also ensure that residents have some ability to define a personalized residential experience for themselves. The set of individuals who define a university is typically diverse, and is becoming increasingly so. While convenience, cost, community, collegiality, comfort and coherence should be considered uniformly across the campus, at the detailed level, options should be provided that may suit different individual lifestyle choices.

    Competition. Only when all other factors are accounted for can the university begin to consider how it performs with respect to other universities. This consideration must be saved for last, because without the preceding criteria, a university might be comparing itself along the wrong lines. For instance, MIT might aim to create an improved aesthetic for its campus, in order to compete with other campuses that are praised for their aesthetic qualities, without realizing that it needs to improve in terms of providing convenient access or opportunities for interaction.

    The results presented in this study provide a ``snapshot'' evaluation of the campus at this particular point in time, considering the particular characteristics of the present MIT residential community. Hopefully, these criteria can be useful in performing ongoing evaluations of current as well as future campus development. MIT should continually ask its campus residents to evaluate the campus according to these criteria, using discussions like the ones I have initiated but perhaps using survey mechanisms as well. MIT should also ask its present residents to evaluate new development policies and plans according to these criteria. Additionally, MIT should develop ways in which future residents can evaluate the campus. This study has dealt primarily with single undergraduate and graduate students, and only marginally with faculty and married students, because that reflects the current composition of the campus residential community. While in many respects the impressions of the few faculty and students with families were similar to those of single students, it would be helpful to undertake this type of analysis with a greater number of faculty and staff if they are expected to play a larger role in the residential community in the future.

    Finally, while these results are based on impressions from the MIT community and are thus intended to be applied to MIT in particular, it would be interesting to learn whether they might be applicable to other universities as well. This could be accomplished by performing another study such as this, to determine if the criteria developed through discussions with residents at other universities share similarities with the criteria developed at MIT, or by directly testing these criteria at other universities to determine their importance. If these criteria are shown to be generally applicable, they can be a great resource for any university that wishes to improve its campus as a residential environment.

    5.2 The MIT Residential Experience

    In initiating this study, it was my impression that there are ways in which the campus itself contributes negatively to the quality of the residential experience, particularly with regards to supporting a campus-wide residential community. Based on an understanding of the form and uses of the MIT campus, the policies and decisions that have shaped it, the information provided through discussions with residents, and the ``8C'' model of residential analysis, I can attempt to explain the quality of the MIT residential experience and indicate how the campus positively or negatively effects that experience.

    The current form of the campus has been the result of a campus development strategy emphasizing an overall separation of uses and a ``house-style'' residential system in which each separate residence has its own internal set of facilities and resources. This has proven to be a practical model, for it has allowed the research, academic, residential, and athletics programs to develop separately, and has allowed for incremental investment into residential facilities by constructing one residence at a time. In terms of the ``8C'' evaluative model, the house system accounts for many important considerations, though only at the local level. Residents have some level of convenience, since many common spaces and facilities such as dining halls and kitchens exist within the residential building. Residents also experience a sense of community among those people who live in the same house or entry. The ``group study'' activities that occur within the house, along with the guidance that younger students receive from older students living nearby, are very valuable components to residents' education. The quality of accommodations is generally high, both in dormitories and independent houses, and so residents generally feel comfortable within them. They also feel a sense of unity and identity within a particular residence or residential sub-group. This model has also allowed for a particular degree of choice. Residents can choose from among different types of residence--- dormitory-style or apartment-style, university-controlled or independent--- but once the choice of residence has been made, residents' options are limited by the resources that are available to that chosen residence.

    While MIT satisfies many residential criteria at the scale of the individual residence, it does not adequately address these criteria with respect to the experience of residents on the campus at large. Unfortunately, it is the west side of campus, where most residential resources have been created over the past several decades, where the campus seems to fail the most. Residents lack convenient access to food and transportation, and moreover, because of the arrangement of residences in a long row, they lack convenient access to other residences, which inhibits opportunities for interaction. Because many residences are far from campus, residents are isolated from academic resources, including libraries and study areas as well as faculty and even their own classes. The pathways along Amherst Street, around Briggs Field, and particularly along Vassar Street and Albany Street are recognized as not being particularly comfortable or pleasing to residents, particularly those who have to travel a long way. Residents also indicate the lack of an integrated ``campus feel'', and a sense that MIT is a place where there is little activity going on, especially after hours.

    Perhaps it is fortunate that MIT was not successful in its initial strategy to consolidate housing on the west side of campus, because that has allowed for some different and interesting types of residential experience to emerge. For instance, on the east side of campus, residents have convenient access to academic uses and therefore feel some sense of cohesion between their residential environment and the MIT academic environment. Also, on the north side of campus along Massachusetts Avenue, residents have access to a more ``urban'' experience with access to a variety of supermarkets, restaurants, and stores. In both of these areas, residents have convenient access to public transportation hubs and the commercial centers that have grown around them. On the far west side of campus, residents do not have convenient walking access to either academic resources or ``urban'' resources, and transportation is not conveniently available. On the other hand, it might seem that the west side of campus has the benefit of proximity to athletics resources and open space. However, these resources are perceived as being not easily usable most of the time. Moreover, Briggs Field serves as an impediment to convenience and community, because it separates residences from one another, as well as an element of discomfort, because of its chain-link fence and its deserted feel at night.

    On the campus-wide scale, it is perhaps MIT's greatest failing that it lacks a central place where all residents can gather. It is somewhat shameful that a campus with so much activity going on at all hours should feel so deserted. The lack of an activity center seems to be due to a combination of many factors, including the separation of residential from academic functions, the distribution of residences in a linear fashion away from the main part of campus, and the distribution of recreational uses, such as restaurants, movies, bars, and the like, across different parts of the campus area. The Student Center, which might be expected to serve in this role, has been criticized for not connecting well to either academic or residential uses, for being visually unappealing, and for not containing an appropriate mix of activities to draw people in and convince them to stay. However, recent improvements seem to have helped create some sense of centrality. The addition of furniture on the first floor of the student center has made it a more comfortable place for people to sit and congregate. The completion of the nearby Zesiger Center has also contributed a sense of coherence to the athletics uses on the west side of campus, and has supported the development of community by bringing individuals from across MIT together in one setting for athletics and recreational activities.

    Continuing to support the notion of an activity center on campus could have enormous benefits to the residential community. Such a center would provide convenience, choice, community, coherence, and comfort by concentrating a diverse set of resources and giving residents a safe setting in which to gather at all hours. In terms of competition, it could make MIT's campus more attractive, and provide it with something comparable to other university activity centers such as Harvard Square.

    I believe that this evaluation helps to confirm, explain, and extrapolate upon the observations of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which found that MIT supports strong individual residential communities while lacking a sense of campus-wide community, and also found that MIT needs to more strongly integrate the formal and informal components of its educational program. It will be difficult to address either of these problems without a campus development strategy that integrates uses and provides convenient opportunities for cross-residence and cross-campus interaction. If MIT's goal is to create a greater sense of cohesion to the entire MIT community, it needs to support a residential experience that extends beyond the walls of particular buildings and considers the campus as a whole.

    5.3 Strategies for Future Development

    In considering MIT's apparent desire to create a more integrated living and learning experience, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson's concept of the ``academical village'' as a model for the University of Virginia campus. As mentioned in Chapter 2, the academical village combined academic, residential, and common facilities into an interconnected complex that could be expanded upon over time. Borrowing from this concept but giving it a more ``urban'' orientation, I suggest that the ideal for the MIT campus could be an ``educational neighborhood''. The educational neighborhood, like the academical village, interweaves academic, research, residential, and recreational uses to create a mixed-use environment that is focused around learning. In addition, unlike the academical village, the educational neighborhood includes private and civic uses as well as institutional uses, and it is integrated with the city and region at large. The aim is to ensure that no residences are isolated, to combine the academic and residential experiences, and to provide the urban amenities of access to a variety of different resources within the area and region. To conclude this study, I have developed some recommendations on the educational neighborhood theme that might be incorporated into a future development strategy for MIT.

    Residential uses typically form the overall ``base'' of a neighborhood. MIT should not try to concentrate residences into one area, but continue to distribute its residential uses across the campus. Residential uses could include dormitory-style housing, apartment-style housing, houses for fraternities or independent cooperatives, even condominiums. No matter the type, residences should be clustered to a degree that they are not isolated, but distributed so as to provide a cross-campus ``residential feel''. Residences should be connected to each other through convenient and comfortable pathways. Food uses should be similarly concentrated and distributed, such that each residence has access to a diverse set of food providers, and each food provider serves a broad range of residences.

    MIT's development history has shown that once areas have begun to be used for housing or any other use, they will likely continue to be used that way despite attempts to remove and replace them elsewhere. MIT's resources are limited, the need to develop housing will probably never subside enough to allow for a consolidation of residences into one area, and the availability of different housing site options will benefit MIT's long-range planning. Therefore, for practical reasons as well as for the betterment of the campus environment as a whole, MIT should consider developing and encouraging the development of more housing in various parts of the neighborhood, particularly those areas where isolated residential buildings have already been established.

    The results of this study indicate that placing residences near academic uses does not have a negative impact on residents' experience. In fact, residents can benefit from living near academic uses by being closer to their classes, having greater access to study resources, and feeling more connected to the campus at large. This implies that MIT might consider changing its current development policy in a couple of different ways. First, it could develop more housing on the east side of campus, to be closer to academic and research facilities. This would give more residents the opportunity to benefit from living close to academic uses while strengthening the residential community in the area. Additionally, MIT might develop more academic uses on the west side of campus. Facilities such as libraries, classrooms, and even faculty offices on the west side of campus would better integrate residents into the academic fabric of MIT, as well as bringing faculty into closer contact with a large residential community. Strategic positioning of such academic facilities might also help to connect west campus residences to one another and provide activity areas that lend a greater sense of cohesion to the west campus.

    This study has also shown that the policy of concentrating athletics fields on the west side of campus has proven to have some negative impacts on the experience of west campus residents. Not only is the field space inaccessible to students for informal recreational use, and unusable for most months of the year, it is also a barrier to cross-residence interaction. MIT needs to consider how to make better use of this space, so that the field space is usable and the campus has safe and convenient connections. If a strategy is adopted that calls for the development of more academic uses on the west side of campus, then a necessary converse strategy will be to develop more athletics field space on other parts of campus, such as the largely undeveloped northwest campus, the east side of campus, or even the main part of campus, if space becomes available. Smaller field spaces that can be left open will provide more convenient opportunities for recreational and intramural sports for residents not living on the west campus. For varsity sports, field locations might be considered closer to the center of campus or near high-traffic areas where they might draw spectators.

    It seems likely, based on MIT's current land holdings and its most recent residential projects, that the northwest area of campus will emerge as a new residential center. If this is the case, MIT needs to seriously consider the availability and quality of pathways that link this area to the main and west parts of campus, and, vice versa, link the west campus residences to the amenities provided in Cambridgeport. Railroad crossings will be a major consideration. These should be located along all major pedestrian routes, and should provide safe and comfortable access without requiring large amounts of travel time. If the two areas are well connected, the area between Vassar and Albany Street might present opportunities for food, recreational, academic, and other uses that would serve both the west and the northwest areas simultaneously, and thus reduce the sense of isolation for both. Such development could also anticipate the development of an "Urban Ring", a public transit line circumscribing the downtown part of Boston, and in the process connecting Westgate to Kendall Square while passing through the center of the campus near Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street. Such a service would connect the west and northwest parts of campus to the regional transportation network, and could encourage activities along the transit line that would link the areas to one other.

    Finally, a strategy to improve the campus as a residential environment should include a plan to develop a true MIT activity center. As previously mentioned, there is a range of recreational activities taking place at all times of day and on weekdays and weekends, though at distributed locations across the campus. These activities include some restaurants, cafes, ``college bars'', spectator sports, movie showings, theater performances, large parties and the like. MIT might benefit from consolidating many of its recreational activities into an area that is safely and conveniently accessible to all parts of campus. Housing should be included into this mix as well, to enliven the area and create opportunities to live within a very convenient distance of many amenities. Academic facilities such as large lecture halls might even be included.

    The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, spanning both sides of both streets and possibly extending to Albany Street, might serve as an effective location for this center. This area is already near the ``center'' of campus, the entrance at 77 Massachusetts Avenue, which bridges the two main ``halves'' of the campus. If designed well, this location could conveniently and coherently link the major academic, athletic, and recreational centers of campus while positioning itself along the major pathways from the west, east, and north. This area also has a large amount of potentially developable or redevelopable space. New building space could be developed by extending the Student Center to the street-front, developing new uses in the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, and rebuilding or renovating building 35, creating a new entrance to the main MIT academic complex that would face the northern side of the campus and Cambridge in general. New buildings could also be constructed on existing parking lots just to the north and south of the railroad tracks. Finally, this location has public transit service via the MBTA's Number 1 bus, and may have even better service if the Urban Ring is developed through it, which would draw people from MIT as well as other parts of the region to this particular junction.

    5.4 Further Considerations

    This study presents a new perspective, the residential perspective, from which to think about MIT's campus development. The recommendations I have made represent general policies and ideas that might improve the MIT campus as a place to live. However, there are many more issues that need to be considered before this can be shaped into a comprehensive development plan.

    MIT needs to consider the practical considerations of how to quantify MIT's future facility needs with respect to academic, research, recreational, and housing activities. Financing needs to be considered, not only in terms of securing the funding for the construction and maintenance of MIT's own facilities, but in terms of private and civic facilities that are to be included within the neighborhood. Both of these considerations may require the use of creative financing techniques. In addition, MIT needs to consider the issue of its own land ownership and development capacity, to determine the extent of development that is feasible in particular areas. This may prove to be a difficult issue, because while zoning laws allow residential uses to be developed almost anywhere in Cambridge, university housing uses are not considered residential but rather institutional, and are much more strictly regulated.

    MIT also could also develop a more specific set of design and aesthetic considerations that reflect the residential perspective. It would be best if the aesthetic considerations, as is the case with the planning considerations I have constructed, were developed through consultation with campus residents. These would help to change the image or ``sense of place'' of the campus, such that it has the sense of a ``neighborhood'' instead of the sense of a ``factory'', as many campus residents seem to regard it.

    Creating a campus development plan based on the residential perspective will be very difficult, primarily because there are many ``non-residential perspectives'' that need to be considered as well. The current separation of residential from other uses lends itself to a sense of ``territoriality'', in which each segment of the MIT population has claim to its own area of land. The faculty who direct MIT's research programs, the vast majority of whom do not live at MIT, may not react favorably to a strategy of integrating residential with research uses because they might view it as an intrusion into research ``territory''. On the other hand, those junior faculty who ``live in lab'' might see the value of enhancing the residential quality of the campus, as well as providing nearby housing for themselves.

    Similarly, the athletics department might be opposed to distributing athletics fields in order to develop uses that would bring academic uses to the west side of campus and bridge the two sides of Briggs Field. Indeed, it has even proven impossible to allow for pedestrian crossings on Briggs Field because it would compromise athletics space. Since the MIT residential community consists almost entirely of students, the residential perspective does not carry enough power to influence issues of campus development, especially when residents have a point of view that conflicts with that of the faculty or administration. The report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning is a strong statement indicating that if MIT is to maintain itself as a top-tier university, it must bring its residential and recreational programs to the level of its academic and research programs. While this represents a strong statement, it must be supported by equally strong policies, plans, and decisions.

    Additional conflicts with the non-residential perspective occur outside of the campus proper. The MIT campus area has become very attractive to companies working in high-technology fields such as biotechnology. While the educational neighborhood concept might readily include private research and development uses as an integrated part of the urban fabric, biotechnology companies are tending to occupy large contiguous areas of land and not provide housing or residential amenities. On the other hand, in developing towards a educational neighborhood, MIT might find an unlikely ally among the residents of Cambridge, who share the goal of creating a more livable neighborhood around MIT. Already, Cambridge residents have used political mechanisms to ensure that developers of commercial property also provide for residential uses and amenities.

    Finally, while MIT may not be suited towards taking a strong ``residential perspective'' on issues, due to its historic and present culture, one should remember that it is still a relatively young institution with respect to its academic function. Having started from having no residential function at all, it has grown greatly over time. Still, only about half of MIT's entire student body and virtually none of its faculty and staff live on the campus. As the number of individuals living and desiring to live on campus increases, the residential perspective will become stronger. The more MIT grows as an institution, the more important it will be that it improves as a residential environment.

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  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Historical Overview of Residence at MIT and Other Universities
  • Chapter 3. Background Information on the MIT Residential Experience
  • Chapter 4. Discussions with Residents on the MIT Campus Environment
  • Chapter 5. Conclusions and Strategies
    5.1 A Framework for Analyzing and Evaluating the Residential Campus
    5.2 The MIT Residential Experience
    5.3 Strategies for Future Development
    5.4 Further Considerations
  • Appendix A: Figures and Maps for Chapters 2 and 3
  • Appendix B: Chart (PDF 3.0K) and Map (PDF 640K) of Residence Discussion Sessions

  • Copyright MMIII Jeffrey C. Roberts. All rights reserved.