In my life, I have enrolled in undergraduate or graduate-level classes at four different institutions. My understanding of what it means to be a student – and attend classes – is based on experience that spans these three periods. All three campuses required a 20-minute walk from housing to class; all three created utterly unique experiences with these 20 minutes.
The first – where I completed my undergrad and proceeded to enroll in graduate-level classes as a brief, fleeting continuation of that education – was at a private campus, complete with sprawling “greens,” Greek life and monsters of schools, by field of study. In the longest commute across campus, I would stroll leisurely from one corner to the other, stopping no more than twice along the way – once to get a coffee, and another at the only intersection along the way.
The second, settled in the middle of downtown, was my destination almost immediately after work, where I held a salaried position, apart from a brief stop at my apartment – also located downtown – to take my dog on his walk. Despite the fact that the commute was 20 minutes door to door, this tight turnaround in daily schedule necessitated the use of a bicycle. Unfortunately, the existence of a proper campus “green” also warranted my walking alongside it – rather than cruising braced atop – for about a third of the commute.
The third school was in an entirely different city and, though it too was nestled in a downtown area, it did not boast any sort of campus “green” that the previous two did. The commute was along narrow city sidewalks – the afterthought of busy city streets intended primarily to manage the flow of automobiles.
My walk across the first campus always felt like a privilege – like a singular element of the very special and particular experience of being an undergraduate student – of attending classes and walking from my dorm, among all the other students, to reach them. It was pleasant to the senses, the walk across campus, and always I felt a warmth and sense of pride over what I felt was an implied ownership.
But when I transitioned in life and found myself making that 20-minute walk across the city of Chicago, the experience no longer felt like the part of something special, let alone something special in and of itself. I understood that I was still very privileged – to be attending classes, to live in such a great city – but the experience felt displaced somehow; walking along streets I shared with few other pedestrians, and instead with 3 – maybe 4 – lanes of traffic. The “special” was lost.
The “in between” matters. The lost place, in between the deliberate one, matters. The white space, against which design is built, matters. The things that are, when measured, little more than nothing, still have intrinsic weight and, as such, inevitable influence on our psyche.