Planning the Unplannable

The following is a guest post written by Dr. Darren Peets, former student Board of Governors representative and campus planning aficionado. We invited Darren to offer a critical retrospective on campus planning procedures, and to offer a solution. Dr. Peets is currently working as a post-doc in Japan.

I was invited to write a short piece for UBC Insiders on the amenability of university campuses (campi, perhaps?) to physical planning exercises such as the current UBC Vancouver Campus Plan. While I’ve been on plenty of planning-related committees and have argued with plenty of planners, I don’t have a degree in planning, so there may be things I’ve overlooked, misunderstood, or oversimplified. I am, however, probably qualified by now to offer a curmudgeonly admonishment about how you people are getting it all wrong, how you should really do it, and how, back in my day, we had to carry the horse through five metres of snow to school and back, uphill both ways. I should also mention that I’m not known for being brief, but I’m occasionally sarcastic.

The first and most important thing to understand about university physical planning is where new buildings and public open space come from on a university campus (existing buildings require much less planning).

At present, most new core buildings are for research, and are funded by federal agencies (generally with part of the money coming from the province, donors, endowments, and/or other sources). These buildings arise because some group of researchers want a facility that will allow them to work together on some project that’s particularly pressing and requires top-of-the-line or specialized infrastructure, and they convince the funding agency that their project is deserving of money. Or they want to work in a better or more suitable facility, and string together enough buzzwords and supporters to sell this to the funding agency. The money arrives with strings attached and deadlines, and the researchers and university must get the rest of the funding together, find a site, and build the building forthwith before the funding dries up or the costs rise and annihilate the budget.

The funding applications naturally chase whichever buzzwords are popular at the time (e.g. interdisciplinary), without necessarily taking them seriously. Planners and architects, who both seem to have an inherent love of buzzwords, buy into these much more than the researchers generally do. It is currently believed that mixing academics from different fields will create all sorts of novel, outside-the-box ideas. This is potentially true, but the right people have to sit down and discuss their work in detail, think hard and critically about things, and take time to reflect on what they’ve heard and how it relates to their own work. The planning approach has been that proximity is enough. It isn’t. It can be difficult to get people in adjacent rooms to mix, let alone different fields. If proximity were enough, the SUB, where people from all fields find food, would be a sizzling ball of pure synergy, spawning interdisciplinary collaboratories by the minute.

Another class of new building is teaching-oriented, built with primarily provincial funding. The government will decide on a whim that it needs to double the number of people graduating in a specific field within about 4 years. The university will point out that this requires professors’ offices, classrooms, space for graduate students, etc., and will be given money to build it (and sometimes also money to operate it thereafter). Since doubling the number of graduates requires that many of these things be in place more than four years in advance, this type of building must be under construction very quickly indeed.

New student housing is built when Housing feels it’s needed, using a 30-year loan paid off through rent charges. The university provides the land, but the housing is not otherwise subsidized.

Amenity and athletic buildings have generally appeared when the student body got sufficiently annoyed with the absence or state of something that they held a referendum to pay for a new one. Usually very little planning work is done on this before the referendum, because the money isn’t there yet and the building might not happen. Once the referendum passes, there’s a strong impetus to get things done very quickly, because those involved want to see something concrete happen before they graduate.

The final significant class of building project that comes to mind is an upgrade to existing facilities, where the university or a department spends years trying to scrape together money to replace something crummy with something nicer. The new building is usually near the original or on the same site, so less planning is required. The department is usually quite eager to get going, as are any donors, so this also tends to move quickly once funded.

The key point here is that most new buildings are surprises, and must be dealt with very quickly. They contain whatever uses they’re supposed to contain based on what the funding was for, and any other use that wants to join the project must also be fully funded, and must be capable of moving quickly enough not to slow the project down. The planning department inherently cannot decide that buildings must be interdisciplinary, or that specific sites are for specific fields of study. Every building is a just-this-once exception to the rules. There generally isn’t time to scrape together the money to put something else in a building that has to be built immediately (e.g. teaching space into a research building), so any secondary use has to be sitting around, fully funded, patiently waiting for the right host project to appear. This could take weeks or it could take decades, so the fully-funded secondary use can’t be important or time-sensitive. This is utterly different from municipal planning, where demand for various land uses is continuous (fluctuating with the market), and different types of uses can be readily mixed or moved around through zoning, taxes and incentives. There, if a developer doesn’t want to do what the municipality wants done with a site, the municipality can wait for the developer to change their mind or for a new developer to step in.

It is possibly also worth emphasizing that the construction and replacement of university buildings is generally not based on need so much as the availability of money. Women’s Studies is operating out of trailers, Math is in “temporary” 1920s buildings with a maximum lifetime that expired half a century ago, and UBC is still using shoddy World War II army huts that were rafted to campus from Indian Arm when the government wasn’t looking. The Hennings building, built mainly of hollow clay brick and without footings, will be destroyed in any moderate earthquake, but a recent seismic retrofit should allow much of it to stand up long enough for people to escape. Funding for open space is scarce and easy to cut. So the areas that most need attention are unlikely to get it, no matter how much they may be planned at.

The 1992 Main Campus Plan got around the problem of surprise funding by structuring itself in terms of broad strategies, with guidelines as to how things might get built to meet these objectives. As one example, it asked that buildings be “transparent”, so that you could immediately see the building’s purpose. As three examples of this idea’s implementation, the FSC’s interiors are predominantly wood, AMPEL, a research building in materials science and engineering disciplines, has a large glass wall showing off its high-headroom lab from the lobby, and the first phase of Koerner Library is shaped like a book, with clear views of the bookstacks from outside (to underscore the unpredictability aspect, Koerner Library phases 2 and 3 were never built—that yellow stucco wall on the back was only supposed to be there for 18 months). An unintended consequence in AMPEL was that, since the vast majority of the high-headroom lab users’ research is actually data analysis and computer simulation, which are done elsewhere in the building, the building looks underutilized.

In the mid-1990s, a provincial building freeze and a more detailed supplementary planning document (A Legacy And A Promise) apparently caused people to forget that the 1992 plan ever existed, and nothing built after 1996 shows much evidence of the plan.

A more recent UBC planning exercise was the master plan for the Okanagan campus. That plan was fairly prescriptive, saying what should go where and what it should look like. It was initially fairly successful, but that’s because the conversion of the campus to a UBC satellite was a provincial whim, complete with about 1/3 of the money required, and it was known within a year what would need to be built and when. Despite the plan’s success, though, my recollection is that every single new building required at least one major variance from the master plan. Then the government decided it needed an Okanagan medical school, some of the academic plans changed, more housing was required, and the plan couldn’t deal with the changes. It had a useful life of about three years.

Now, I’ve mentioned buildings in great detail, but where does public open space come from? Simplicity itself! Open space is whatever hasn’t been built on yet. (Areas that have developed historical or sentimental value are less likely to be built on.) This is somewhat backwards, as open space tends to be the part of campus students travel through the most. The planners seem to view campus as a collection of buildings with leftover space in between, while students tend to see a network of paths and open space with buildings sticking out of it, most of which they’ll never enter. It would be interesting to have some mechanism in place to weigh the loss of public space or pathways when new buildings were considered, or get them incorporated into the new building, but having such a mechanism may require a fairly major shift in thinking.

A final key point is enforcement. For a plan to have meaning, it can’t be possible for people to forget that it exists or start ignoring it. This requires an independent body in charge of evaluating whether a given proposal is compatible with the plan, and adjudicating requests for variances. A proposal would need to pass this body (or possibly comply with the plan to the letter) in order to be seen by Board. In a municipality, there would be a Board of Variance, or possibly the municipal council itself, dealing with deviations from the plan. UBC has no body with such a mandate. Aside from being anything but independent or representative, the Planning department, through forgetting about the 1992 plan, has proven that it cannot serve as this mechanism. The Board is ill-suited to consider such requests, and would not want or need the extra drain on its time. So some new structure needs to be created, or an existing structure given teeth. I scanned the plan and saw nothing beyond the existing process, so I have little reason to believe that the plan will be implemented for any significant length of time. A related unresolved issue is enforcing promises having to do with the operation of the building once built. An example is the Kaiser atrium, which was allowed to be built over a major east-west path on the strict condition that it be open 24 hours a day, every single day of the year. When the building opened, the atrium was unlocked roughly 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, most of the year. There was simply no way to enforce an operations-related promise, and I saw nothing in the plan that would fix this either.

Tempting though it is for me to read through the 200+ pages of draft plan, I’m not going to, so I may have missed something, and I can’t evaluate for sure how it’s likely to fare. But its length suggests a level of detail incompatible with success.

Basically, physical planning on a university campus is extremely difficult, but strategies to shape what will happen anyway can work. Implementing a plan requires that projects receive guidance, which is available, and enforcement, which is not. The plan must also be general enough to adapt to any eventuality. Based on a quick scan of the draft plan, I’m not confident that it passes these tests.


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  1. [...] When asked about all of the utilities that were moved last year, she said those would have needed to be moved anyways in order to properly service the new buildings going in there (currently only the New SUB and the Alumni Centre, and possibly some student residences.) Even if the project is cancelled, the university still does not look fondly on the current location for two reasons: a promise made to the UEL that the bus loop would only be temporary, and the designation of the land it currently sits on as the “Gage South” neighbourhood, slated for market housing. As to what that means, while Campus and Community Planning will be looking to develop the future transportation plan with all of campus (we can all hope that actually happens; it certainly didn’t with the underground bus loop), a rather large, easily accessible and relatively central location would have to be found if a new bus loop were to be built. In the land use plans laid out in the current version of the campus plan, that certainly isn’t there (and this is why we should all listen to Darren Peets when he says planning is a total crapshoot). [...]

    Posted by A Tunnel to Nowhere? : UBC Insiders | October 27, 2009, 9:20 pm
  2. I stopped reading this article at “The government will decide on a whim that it needs to double the number of people graduating in a specific field within about 4 years”.

    Does Dr. Peets have any references or examples with which to back this allegation up?

    Posted by Chris | October 28, 2009, 1:47 pm
  3. The two recent ones that I can think of are engineering/computer science (“Double the Opportunity”) and medical school. The former resulted in Kaiser, Dempster and the ICIS extension onto the back of CICSR, among other things. The latter resulted in the Life Sciences Centre. Both were literally doubling the number of graduates in a roughly 5-year period. Both were completed within the last ~3-4 years. The addition of a medical school at the Kelowna campus puts significant additional demands on the LSC, where the students spend their first year, but I don’t know how that was dealt with.

    These are mentioned on the Ministry of Advanced Education’s website if you want to check: http://www.aved.gov.bc.ca/organization/uib/welcome.htm


    Posted by F. Hydrant | October 29, 2009, 6:29 pm
  4. [...] the Unplannable. Alex Lougheed, ed.  In UBC Insiders, online,            Oct. 14, 2009. http://blogs.ubc.ca/ubcinsiders/2009/10/14/planning-the-unplannable/ 2008a UBC Bus Terminal: Unresolved Problems. Aug. 1st 2008. Facebook note. [...]

    Posted by STUDENT RESISTANCE, the UBC FARM MOVEMENT and the UNDERGROUND BUS-LOOP FIASCO « Environmental Communications | November 5, 2009, 3:05 pm
  5. [...] the Unplannable. Alex Lougheed, ed.  In UBC Insiders, online,            Oct. 14, 2009. http://blogs.ubc.ca/ubcinsiders/2009/10/14/planning-the-unplannable/ 2008a UBC Bus Terminal: Unresolved Problems. Aug. 1st 2008. Facebook note. [...]

    Posted by STUDENT RESISTANCE, the UBC FARM MOVEMENT and the UNDERGROUND BUS-LOOP FIASCO « UBC Student Media | November 7, 2009, 8:09 pm
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