Campus Compass
The charge to campus planners: Keep it old, make it new, and by all means do something about parking

Campus Compass

VINNY Cirasole does a brisk business from his cart in the Conant Hall Courtyard. Plunked in a small valley just down the slope from the library and hemmed in on two sides by Hewitt and Conant halls, Vinny's sits in the midst of one of the university's most heavily traveled intersections. His new cart has the look of a period trolley, and between classes people line up at the window for coffee and bagels, sandwiches and smoothies. But there's not a bench in sight that invites customers to stay and eat. Instead, there's an inhospitable mess of parking spaces, paved walkways and struggling trees. There's no definition to the space, no reason to stick around. "This," says Doug Bencks, with the sweep of an arm, "is not a place."

Just up the hill, in front of Murkland Hall, the neighborhood improves dramatically, and the director of UNH's campus planning surveys the scene with satisfaction. "This is a major campus crossroads," says Bencks, noting the students streaming in and out of Murkland, Dimond Library and Thompson Hall. "But it's also a place in its own right—people hang out here." Today, the benches in this outdoor room are full. Students talk in small groups or sit alone with a book. The space is alive. It is inhabited.

College Road (between Paul Creative Arts Center and Parsons, above,) will be transformed into a pedestrian walkway, below.

It wasn't always this way. Murkland Courtyard used to be just like its nondescript neighbor. Shortly after Bencks arrived at UNH about 15 years ago, he helped transform the site into a place that was, well, a place. "It's a good example," he says, "of something we're trying to do all over campus: creating spaces that bring people together, that build community."

When the University System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees recently approved the university's 2004 Master Plan, they were endorsing precisely this—a vision of the future rooted in a sense of place. "Our job," Bencks says of the three-person Office of Campus Planning, "is to serve as stewards, to make sure that future generations have something as wonderful as we have today." Master planning is an ongoing process, he notes, explaining that the 20-year plan is a tweaked version of the one that preceded it. And the vision it puts forth is a collective one. "People have good ideas," he says. "We try to take these ideas and see what makes sense for the future."

Bencks also likes to define what master planning is not. "It's not just about growth," he says, noting that the plan reflects a cap on enrollment at about 12,000 undergraduate and 2,500 graduate students (currently 10,850 and 2,150 respectively). Designed to support UNH's three-pronged mission of teaching, research and public service, the 2004 plan calls for strategic changes over a 20-year period: new and renovated academic buildings; more student housing; expanded transportation and parking options; and restoration of the natural environment.

Of course, there are challenges. "People are always concerned about their own corner of the world," says Bencks, "the view from their window, being able to park nearby, the inconvenience of moving." But change is required, he says, if UNH is to thrive in a way that respects the environment and improves the daily experience.

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