There’s no singular campus experience, but there are a few moments that are iconically “Michigan” — walking through the Diag, studying in the UgLi, going out to the less-than-pristine bars on South University Avenue. Until recently, I had never noticed a common thread between these scenes, but now their similarity strikes me: all of them take place on Central Campus.
The fact that when we think of Michigan we think of Central Campus is unsurprising. There’s a reason students joke about having never been to North Campus, and why incoming freshmen assigned to live on North try to pay thousands of dollars to swap dorms with someone on Central. Everything we envision as “The Michigan Experience” revolves around Central. Why would anyone sacrifice Ann Arbor’s indescribable energy and its historic, vibrant Central Campus for the dated ’50s architecture and suburban sprawl that is North Campus?
Much has already been said about the shortcomings of North Campus. But for better or worse, it’s part of the University, and as the campus continues to grow, we’ll be increasingly looking toward North for extra space.
But how did North and Central develop such distinct characters in the first place? And how might we envision a better North Campus?
In my final year as a University undergraduate student, I figured it’s finally time to immerse myself in the illusive, evergreen acres of North Campus. My plan was this: to spend a whole day on North Campus and to try to appreciate and evaluate it on its own merits, not just in contrast to Central.
I’d like to think I’ve spent more time on North Campus than the average student whose classes are all on Central. I never lived in Bursley or Baits, but over the pandemic, I would frequently drive to the Ford Robotics Building to study, since it was one of the few buildings on campus that was open into the late hours of the night.
During some of those study sessions, I found myself walking through the woods behind Bursley, getting takeout off Plymouth Road and exploring Pierpont Commons. However, I had never spent more than a few hours on North Campus and had never truly immersed myself in it.
So, in an effort to understand what it was really like to live and learn on North Campus, I devised a way to better understand the space.
Admittedly, spending a day on North is nothing compared to living there. Before embarking on my north-bound excursion, I decided to speak with some of the folks who’ve previously made North Campus their home.
Information senior Huda Shulaiba lived in Northwood Housing last year, despite only having classes on Central, because it was more affordable for her than signing a year-long lease on Central. Since Northwood is being demolished, Shulaiba moved onto Central before the beginning of this fall semester — but said she would’ve moved to Central even if she had the option to live in Northwood again.
“Northwood was great, but a lot of the things that make college life fun don’t really happen (there) because everyone else is on Central,” Shulaiba explained.
Despite feeling some social isolation there, Shulaiba admitted that “I always love talking about living on North because I love having lived on North. But sometimes I don’t want to talk too much about North because then everyone will go up there. It’s nice and peaceful, and I want to gatekeep it a bit. Central is great, but it can be so overstimulating. But you can go back up to Northwood, and you get that bus ride to switch off school-mode and switch on home-mode.”
Riding the bus up to North, I felt that mental shift Shulaiba was describing, albeit in reverse. As the Commuter North approached Pierpont Commons, I felt a refreshing sense of clarity and focus. Equipped with three practice exams for my upcoming midterms, a coding project I hadn’t started and a list of buildings my friends in engineering had suggested I visit, I set out to experience North.
Maybe the mainstream culture of the University does not lie at North Campus. However, fiscally and academically speaking, North Campus has been, and will continue to be, the future of the University.
In 1947, the University purchased 267 acres north of the Huron River — the land that would eventually become North Campus — in anticipation of the post-WW2 boom in higher education. The rapid increase in enrollment also coincided with the rise of STEM positions in the workforce and a desire for higher education. Plans were soon made to gradually move the College of Engineering to the undeveloped site, and new buildings to house the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the School of Architecture and Urban Planning followed less than a decade later.
Construction plans were then scaled back in response to shortfalls in the state’s budget in the 1970s. Since then, however, North Campus has continued to grow without interruption, although not without complaints from students that North isn’t “integrated into campus,” that the commute between North and Central is too long and that living there will negatively impact their social life.
In 2008, the University published a revised master plan for the area entitled “North Campus Vision 2005-2025.” The document could’ve been written today: It echoes familiar complaints, stating North Campus lacks “the desired social, retail, and service amenities” and “pedestrian scale, intimate outdoor spaces, rich architectural detail, density, and history of the Central Campus core to which it is compared by the campus community.”
The master plan provided suggestions for revitalizing North Campus, such as improving transportation, building outdoor gathering spaces and increasing density. It’s unclear why these complaints have gone unaddressed for over a decade since the master plan was published. The University is acutely aware of North’s shortcomings, but appears unwilling to invest the resources into fixing them.
But sooner or later, the student body will need to learn to love North Campus. Academic enrollment at U-M has increased every year for over a decade, putting increasing pressure on student housing options. In 2014, the University modified admissions policies due to over-enrollment and shared plans to shrink the freshman class size. But by 2021, the freshman class size had increased 16.7% from the University’s 2014 target — over 7,000 freshmen stepped onto campus that year.
More students (i.e. more tuition dollars) sounds like a great thing until you remember we have to put all these students somewhere.
The 2008 report notes that “as fewer development opportunities exist on the established Central Campus, North Campus will play an increasingly important role in the future of the University.” If that was true then, it’s undeniable now.
Since 2008, the University has built the Biological Sciences Building, which abuts the Central Campus Transit Center, and added additional square footage to multiple facilities on Central Campus, using up some of the remaining land parcels that were available for development. Entire academic units, such as the School of Information, are moving to North Campus, suggesting that Central is running out of room for growth. Building taller is an option, but that typically involves demolishing existing structures.
Most notably, the University hasn’t added any new dorms on Central Campus since the 2008 master plan was published — but plans are underway for a new dorm on North Campus that will house 1,200 students.
New students, new majors and new academic units have to go somewhere. And increasingly, that place is North Campus.
The first thing my retreat to North Campus revealed to me was that the campus, despite its robust history as a developmental hotspot for campus structures, can best be understood as an urban planning problem.
Walking through the grove, which is the center of North Campus, and up toward Plymouth Road, the campus’s main commercial corridor, I was struck by two facts. First, most of the basic amenities existed somewhere on campus. There were no bars or grocery stores or boutiques, but there was still a decent selection of restaurants, the newly renovated North Campus Recreation Building and beautiful green space. Secondly, and most importantly, I could hardly enjoy what amenities were there because they were too far away from the main academic buildings and dorms.
“The current design (of North Campus) is very inward-focused, very traditional campus planning paradigm around a bell tower,” explained Robert Goodspeed, a professor at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. As a result, buildings on North Campus are centered around a central point — the Lurie Bell Tower — without much regard for their proximity to fast transit or commercial services.
This is obvious even to people who aren’t experts in urban planning. Shulaiba said that North Campus “isn’t built like a downtown, it’s more like a suburb.”
I came face to face with North’s suburban sprawl when I tried to explore. I had hit a wall studying in Pierpont and decided I was desperately in need of a change in scenery, so I took a short walk to grab bubble tea off Plymouth Road before getting back to work. What I thought would be a 30-minute break turned into over an hour, since everything was so far away. I had seen North’s low density many times before but hadn’t fully understood the friction it adds to everyday life.
Goodspeed recalled how he had once heard someone describe Central as “the green and the grid — the Diag being a green space surrounded by the city, and the campus being intermixed.” North Campus, conversely, was the grid and the green — a collection of buildings without much nearby besides forest.
I wish I could report back on some horror story of getting lost on a Blue Bus or being stranded in the forest or falling in the Huron River, but in reality, my trip “up North” was very mundane. I took the bus both ways, I spent several hours in the Duderstadt library, I wandered around campus listening to music and had Ahmo’s for dinner in the basement of Pierpont Commons.
The whole ordeal was unremarkable but nice, pleasant in a way that makes it hard to pinpoint its inadequacy.
Creating a new North Campus from the ground up isn’t feasible, but if the problem is the built environment, then the University can always rebuild. There are minor improvements the University could make to North that would improve its design, and therefore, its usability and potential as a socially enjoyable space.
Improving transportation is one immediate opportunity. The University can’t change North’s geographic proximity, but it can make student’s commutes faster and easier by expanding student’s transportation options.
“There’s no bike lanes, there’s no bike infrastructure,” Goodspeed said. “It’s really quite generic auto-centric boulevards, which is kind of absurd because I’m on a boulevard that runs like three blocks long.”
Shulaiba said that she’d like to see improvements made to the Blue Bus app so that students can more accurately estimate their commute times. She suggested the University invest in high speed rail as an alternative to Blue Buses, given the extensive criticism the less-than-dependable transit system has received.
Looking further into the future, Goodspeed noted that “a lot of University lands actually back right up to places which, from a planning point of view, are very well suited for growth because they’re near commercial services or transit.” Developing in the right places is crucial, then, in order to prevent further sprawl and put students in closer proximity to the amenities they desire.
But Goodspeed also emphasized that “good planning isn’t only about imposing your values or preference, but also about drawing out and amplifying the strengths of different places.”
North will never be Central 2.0. Any plans that try to replicate the energy and experience of Central will end up disappointing us. Beyond adding density and improving transportation, the University must also try to envision a North Campus that’s lively, vibrant and distinct from Central.
The University’s North Campus master plan notes the area’s “psychological connection to the Huron River Valley, the ecological benefits of the adjacent woodlands and the importance of open space.” The beautiful woodlands and proximity to the Huron were by far North’s most redeeming qualities to me. But North Campus doesn’t leverage these strengths — there are some paths, but any constructed connections to nature feel like an architectural afterthought.
It’s possible to preserve North’s natural beauty while creating places that students want to be.
“We can add density in the existing kind of urbanized part of the campus and perhaps think of creative ways to further build connections to the more natural parts of the campus,” Goodspeed said. “We’re not going to snap our fingers and make it a Central Campus. But let’s make it kind of cool and different and work better than it is now and less suburban.”
I don’t think that the vision of what’s iconically “Michigan” will change anytime soon, and I’m confident it will never be made up of scenes of North Campus.
But after a day of immersing myself in North Campus, I could begin to see the vision. I could imagine bike lanes along Murfin Avenue, mixed-use development with student housing, coffee shops and restaurants near Plymouth Road and trails looping through the forest behind Bursley. I could see a version of North Campus that appeals to students who don’t like the business of Central but also want to be near amenities and have a social life.
North will continue to grow and more students will live and learn there, purely out of necessity. This may seem like a grim future for student life at Michigan, but it doesn’t have to be.
We can build a better North Campus, but only if we have the ambition and vision to do so.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.