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Today marks the start of the fall semester, and the first large-scale presence of students on campus since March of 2020. Some of us have been going to campus for a little while now, but it feels empty with so few students. This will be different.

Many of us in higher ed -- and outside it, for that matter -- know that there’s just something about a college campus. This week I read something that helped me figure out what that is.

Many campuses are full communities at walkable scale. For many Americans, college is the only time, or one of the very few, when they get to live in a full community at walkable scale.

That may sound small, but it matters.

Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in the early ’60s, lays out the argument nicely. Vibrant public street life makes it easy to encounter other people, and to perform the delicate dance of interaction and ignoring by which people navigate cities. “Eyes on the street” ensure a kind of physical safety. By mixing people of different ages, races, classes and personalities in close quarters, vibrant streets form vibrant communities.

Jacobs’s work was largely a response to Robert Moses, who used highways and overpasses to bisect or isolate communities. (For instance, low overpasses on certain highways prevented buses from driving there, thereby keeping certain people from going to certain places.) Although this is a gross oversimplification, it’s the difference between a place built for walking and a place built for driving.

Campuses, by and large, are built for walking. The more inviting ones usually have open areas that allow for aimless hanging out. Not coincidentally, campuses often have major issues with parking. As do most walkable cities.

Most of America is built for cars. Suburbia is the classic case, though most rural life involves a lot of driving, too.

Driving is much more isolating. Walking around campus when people are there involves not knowing whom I’ll run into. Happy accidents happen. With cars, accidents are almost never happy. If someone unexpected crosses my path on campus, that can lead to a great discussion. If someone unexpected shows up in my car, that’s a security issue.

I didn’t have a car as an undergrad. It mostly didn’t matter, except for the occasional bout of small-campus claustrophobia. People could drop by other people’s dorm rooms. The dining halls, which featured round tables that would seat six to eight, were short walks away. People were just around. Sometimes that got a little fishbowl-y, but the default setting was sociability.

Now I drive to work from a house with a driveway and a bit of grass separating it from the houses on either side. Almost any errand involves driving. That tends to reduce the serendipity that happened when I lived in more walkable places.

Serendipity isn’t always good, of course. Living in New Brunswick in the ’90s, I walked almost everywhere and rarely had an issue. But I was also young, tall and male. I was less likely to be interfered with than a woman, or someone older or smaller. And in the context of an airborne pandemic, when social distancing is suddenly considered a positive good, solo driving comes off as a safety measure. I don’t wear a mask in the car because there’s no reason to.

Maybe that’s what makes this year’s return to campus so enticing. Zoom has its merits, and I admit that attending virtual meetings while barefoot has a certain charm. But I miss people, and I think others do, too.

Campuses are all about people with a common purpose working together in loosely coordinated ways. They’re very much like the ideal city of Jane Jacobs’s book. In that sense, they’re out of keeping with the major trends of the country as a whole.

All the more reason we need them. They remind us of what’s possible. I look forward to the reminder.

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