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How A Smart University Design Can Help Revitalize A City

Monterrey Tec’s plan to reintegrate with its surrounding neighborhood is bringing over $1 billion in investments to a previously neglected area.

When the Tecnológico de Monterrey was built in 1943, all that surrounded it were wide-open fields. Slowly, Monterrey Tec grew into a multi-campus university with 31 locations across Mexico, and the city of Monterrey developed and spread out to surround the original campus at the edge of the city. But the university and the neighborhoods around it didn’t have much to do with each other. As Monterrey Tec became one of the most respected academic institutions in Latin America, the nearby parts of the city fell into economic decline.

Like many universities in Latin America, Monterrey Tec was closed off to the surrounding community–both physically, with gates, and abstractly, through lack of investment, Dennis Pieprz, a principal at Sasaki, told Co.Exist in an interview. When the university’s board members recognized that the institution could act as a lifeline and a source of economic regeneration for the community around it, they realized they would need to reconceptualize the campus’s role in the city.

Monterrey Tec brought the urban design firm Sasaki in to assess the campus and draw up a plan that would seamlessly integrate the university into the city. “For urban designers, this was a very unusual assignment,” Pieprz said. Normally, designers like Pieprz are asked to look at a campus in a silo, addressing elements like the library and the sports facilities, and how they knit together a neat, isolated square. But Monterrey Tec asked Sasaki to look at the neighborhoods around the campus. “So instead, we were talking about streets and public realm and civic space,” Pieprz says.

Sasaki’s plan, which was recently awarded an AIA Honor Award for urban design, was approved in 2015, and implementation began in 2016. One of the first things the framework laid out was a plan to reconcieve with the university’s walls. Around the outside of the campus, streets were poorly lit and frequently drew crime. By opening up the university and improving local streets, the plan “enhanced security through more visibility and lighting, and lots of activity at all hours,” Pieprz says.

The framework also does away with the campus’s large stadium, once isolated by a sea of parking lots, in favor of a smaller facility integrated into the neighborhood with accessible streets and mixed-use retail space on the ground floor. The more inclusive space, Pieprz says, will welcome people not directly involved with the university into the variety of activities hosted in the stadium.

But it’s not just a matter of bringing the neighborhood to the university, Pieprz says; the plan calls for the academic institution to more concretely invest in the areas around it. Monterrey Tec is currently doing so by supporting the development of more local, non-university affiliated parks; graduate students from Monterrey Tec are also required to devote service hours to working with community facilities around the campus, like the local public high school.

Though Sasaki’s plan is still being implemented, Pieprz stresses the importance of getting this kind of unified framework out into the open. “When an institution like this puts forward a vision for the future, for the next five, 10, 15, 20 years or more, that sends a signal to the rest of the city–the development community, investors, potential partners, that the university has a roadmap, and it brings a level of confidence to the campus and its surrounding context,” Pieprz says. So far, the plan has brought about an investment of over $1 billion in its surrounding neighborhoods–a crucial step for an area of Monterrey that had seen hardly any money flow in in recent years, and that has long lacked resources like housing and retail.

Pieprz hopes that Sasaki’s plan for Monterrey Tec will send a signal to other universities–throughout the world, but especially throughout Latin America, where many campuses remain cut off from their surrounding contexts, as Monterrey Tec was–that academic institutions can act as major economic drivers of cities and urban environments. “We’re setting an important precedent for this kind of work,” Pieprz says.

[All Images: via Sasaki]

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