When Outside magazine released their list of the 16 best towns to live in, one thing that struck me was how many of them were college towns. Of the 16 chosen, at least half have a university or college as the city center, and all of them fit the general description of a college town. That college towns are considered exceptionally livable is no surprise – my parents just retired to a college town, citing the density, walkability, diversity, and easy availability of low-quality marijuana. (What, my mom has glaucoma, but is scared of a “bad trip.”)
What is surprising is that when you consider contemporary trends in urban development, what planners are doing is converting cities into college towns. The “village-style” development that’s all the rage in smart growth circles right now should really be called the “campus-style” development; all the principles of the village development, from walkable cores and “strips,” to the irrelevance of cars, to a concentrated diversity of entertainment options, apply equally to the campus. So why has this paradigm suddenly trickled into the mainstream?
It might help to look at the organizing principles of the college town. College towns sprung up organically around a central core – the school. Everything in town had to cater to a consumer that most likely didn’t have a car (for reasons of student poverty) – hence the walkability. But these businesses also had to compete fiercely for limited disposable income (poverty again), which led to a high level of diversity. And culturally, college is supposed to be about the sharing of ideas and having new experiences – so anything that smacks of barriers or self-segregation is frowned upon. (Remember how you rolled your eyes at your friends who coupled up and moved far off campus?) The ideal is to be close to everyone else, and close to the action.
Consider, then, that suburbia is the polar opposite of the college town. Everyone has a car; everyone drives. At the peak of the suburb’s historical moment, many developments were built without any sidewalks at all. (Think about that!) Housing and businesses are strictly separated, and physically remote from each other. People self-segregated by income, religion, race. Houses were separated by yards and fences, neighbors were seen as the competition, and conformity was encouraged. As the appeal of this lifestyle has faded – along with the idea that homogeneity and cultural isolation is a good thing – it’s no wonder that the opposite model has become popular. Today’s nuclear family isn’t modeled on a fortress anymore – us against the world – instead following the model of a cell, a semi-discrete unit surrounded with a permeable membrane.
There are other factors, of course. Some are brutally simple. Suburbia is expensive. The rising cost of oil and housing has made it impractical for a middle class that’s seen decades of stagnant wages. Strangely, the suburbs are now the province of the very rich and the very poor, with very few people inbetween. Living in a dense urban environment that makes car ownership superfluous gets you the most bang for the buck. Also, as is often the case with cultural trends, nostalgia is a factor. Americans are marrying later and later (and sometimes not at all), which has given rise to a new demographic of perpetually young professionals with pockets full of disposable income. Why wouldn’t they want to live in versions of their fondly-remembered college towns (now with better beer)? And looking at the big picture, the values of college life have become the adult mainstream, from casual sex (I don’t know whether to be encouraged or disturbed by how many 40-somethings I see Tinderin’) to casual drug use (when even Missouri is about to legalize marijuana, you know the “War on Drugs” era is over). The move towards college-style physical communities might just be the last, and most literal, manifestation of a larger cultural transformation. And thank the lord for that. Now if we could just get adult men to stop wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops, this new anti-maturity utopia would be complete.