Monday, June 4, 2007

Campus Plan Report

You've all seen the signs carpeting our pavements and draping our buildings at UBC, asking you "what's the plan?". This fancy publicity campaign is promoting the process of coming up with a ten-year strategic plan for the academic campus of UBC. The Plan addresses the holistic, and specific vision for all of the university's institutional buildings and spaces ; these include residences, research facilities, classrooms, administration buildings, gardens, etc. Basically, the consultation and publicity campaign regard the academic core of the campus - as distinct from the various outlying areas owned by UBC where private development has taken place: these are not considered academic buildings. Important to note, is that the University Boulevard area is not included in the academic Campus Plan process, though it is located in the centre of the campus; it is designated as a "neighborhood," like the outlying private developments. This means that, first, it's farther along in the development process (time-wise) than the main Campus Plan, and that second, its development process has not been tied to that of the rest of campus, and has been fraught with conflict. Refer to earlier posts on this topic.

Anyhow, this month the report summarizing Phase Three (titled "talking about the future") of the ten-year Campus Plan process came out. This phase comprised of various consultations, as well as a speaker series. The report, which can be found here (click), details the feedback from focus groups, presentations (including to AMS council), and an extensive on-line survey form which was open to students faculty, staff, and community members. The structure of this planning process involves the University's Campus and Community Planning office, who conduct the consultations and public relations, and three committees that actually carry out the analysis and planning work. These are the Steering Committee, Technical Advisory Committee, and Project Team. They all report to the Board of Governors and each committee comprises of people from the University Neighborhood Association, students, staff, faculty, alumni, etc.

It strikes me as strange that the UNA has a stake in the main Campus Plan development process while students faculty and staff have historically had very little to do with the vision and design behind the various neighborhood developments (starting with Hampton Place, the first, which, under former President Strangway had basically no consultation). The relationship should arguably be the opposite. While the university seems to have taken a slightly more consultative approach to its profit-driven neighborhood developments in recent years with the creation of the University Town committee, it is odd that the UNA should be interested in the University's academic buildings. Extreme deference for the Neighborhoods' interests in the campus's academic core seems to be thematic, in fact: at the recent BoG meeting at least three governors repeated commitments to the neighborhoods regarding the stalled underground transit station, though such a station would hardly serve their locations at all, having nearer transit stops on the way. Could all this concern and all these committee posts be because Premier Gordon Campbell himself (a former developer and buddy of David Strangway) has taken up residence in Hawthorne Place, across from Totem Field?

In any event, the feedback was fairly predictable. Services near work and living spaces, green spaces, focus on sustainability, cycling and pedestrian focus, social spaces, density in the academic core, flexible collaborative research/work environments like the UBC Farm, and a sense of 'place' (whatever that means).

The UBC Farm came up repeatedly in the reported feedback, and seemed to be the single most addressed topic. It figured in the contexts of sustainability, integrative research, community outreach, and green spaces. Well done to the farm supporters for getting such a strong message across through this official consultation. It's on paper now!!

Some of the questions in the online survey, I found very easy to either support or be concerned with. A few though were vague, hard to understand, and nearly meaningless. For example, key policy direction 3, reads thus:

New buildings should maximize the flexibility in the design of the learning
spaces to enable students and faculty to incorporate innovative teaching and
learning methods.

Now, I truly have no idea how buildings, however "flexible," can contribute in any way to having "innovative teaching methods". It is my impression that with appropriate AV equipment, which UBC already possesses, it is up to each instructor to teach. Key policy direction 2 is also strange. It postulates that

Building locations should enhance the opportunity for interdisciplinary research and study and collaboration between allied disciplines, and provide opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in faculty research projects.

Again, how a building's location will create collaborative relationships and internship opportunities is a mystery to me. The campus as it is, is not vast or labyrinthine. I have never walked into an office or a lab and decided to volunteer there because it was handy to my English class. Nor have I heard of someone declining a summer NSERC because it was located more than 100 meters from their favorite lunch spot. I fear that collaborations and undergrad research opportunities still depend on people creating them. Anyhow, other than said incoherencies, the survey was fairly satisfactory. Some of the "key policy direction" statements were a little hard to disagree with because of the positive-spin phrasing, but there was plenty of space to provide written comments, and these seem to be faithfully reported (excepting my specific complaints, which I included at the time and make no appearance) in the document.

Sadly, for all the publicity, and visibility, only 277 people total and 170 students mustered the personal resources necessary to go and answer the survey. An additional number of people (amount not noted) participated in the focus groups and presentation sessions. Considering the enormous publicity effort, and the fact that farm-affiliated students alone probably comprised at least a third of student respondents, I'm disappointed with the response to the online survey. 170 students is just enough to cover AMS involvees, farm people, interested parties from the school of architecture and urban planning, and a few other scattered keeners. If banners, fancy websites, and broadcast emails aren't enough to get the general student population interested enough in their physical academic surroundings to answer a half-hour survey, I do not know what is.