Once again, conservative Yale is ahead of its time. Though it may not be obvious to the casual observer, Yale today is on the cutting edge of planning. Under the auspices of the “Framework for Campus,” by Cooper Robertson, Yale is quietly transforming the way the campus works.

This transformation has nothing to do with fancy new buildings by “starchitects.” Planning has been hijacked by starchitects who have convinced major clients that planning and design are synonymous. The public, eager to enjoy the latest fashions, now includes fans who debate the merits of Gehry and Hadid as passionately as movie fans debate the latest performances by DiCaprio or Damon. However inspiring a Gehry or Hadid building may be, it does not make a community; nor is erecting one of their buildings an example of planning. Fortunately, Yale has never thought of planning only as architectural design.

When I arrived at Yale nearly a half century ago, its leadership was commissioning new buildings from the famous architects of the day: Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Gordon Bunshaft and Philip Johnson. Many of these buildings were more than just cultural icons. As a freshman in Yale College, I was unable to direct visitors to Science Hill. By the time I was a graduate student at the School of Architecture, however, I could point to the Kline Biology Tower. Johnson and his clients understood that this tower provided a visible presence for the sciences, a means of orientation and an approach to integrating science into the daily life of a campus filled with towers.

Even then, Yale was not under the delusion that architectural design was all that planning was about. During the 1960s, long before environmentalism was in vogue, it began to green the campus with a wide variety of trees, bushes, and flowers that reduced ambient temperature, filtered air and provided a hospitable habitat for birds and animals. At the same time, university leaders were enriching the campus by integrating women and non-whites into undergraduate Yale.

President Levin recognized that if Yale was to flourish, there had to be programs to integrate what was then a precious but isolated island with the rest of downtown New Haven. He created the job of Vice President & Director of New Haven and State Affairs. Bruce Alexander has held this position from the start. His conception of effective planning goes beyond the efforts of the 1950s and 60s, when President Griswold and Mayor Lee hired the finest architects of their day. Alexander has directed investments that transformed a once-seedy Broadway into a regional retail destination and the area south of Chapel Street into a steadily improving neighborhood, as important to Yale students as it is to downtown New Haven.

A decade ago, as part of the University’s continuing effort to enrich the quality of life within the Yale community, it hired the architecture and urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners to take a close look at the campus and provide some intelligent choices for its future. Alexander Cooper and Jaquelin Robertson are both graduates of Yale College and the School of Architecture. They knew Yale backwards and forwards. David McGregor, the firm’s other principal in charge of the project, had been Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges and acting President of Southampton College. It was the ideal team to help the university. Other universities agree – Cooper Robertson & Partners has prepared or are working on master plans for Harvard, MIT, Fordham, Trinity, UNC Charlotte and the Johns Hopkins and Duke University Medical Campuses.

Unlike the approach taken by many planners, Cooper Robertson did not start by cataloguing classroom, athletic, laboratory, library and museum needs. This usually results in lists of “nice-to-haves” that may or may not be realistic. Instead, the firm began by examining the university’s rich architectural heritage, previous planning efforts by John Russell Pope (1919), James Gamble Rogers (1920s and 30s) and the pioneering work of the starchitects of the 1950s and 1960s. More importantly, it analyzed all 835 acres of Yale property (including the 200-acre central campus, the golf course and nature preserves) and 340 existing buildings in terms of systems: circulation (pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular), parking, services, signage, lighting, etc… It also considered Yale’s interaction with New Haven. Most importantly, it presented opportunities for improvements to the physical environment and a framework for considering their implementation. Consequently, during the seven years since this Framework for Campus Planning has been in existence, the university has been able to make more intelligent development choices.

The Framework for Campus Planning did not propose flashy new buildings. Rather, it argued for more intelligent use of existing properties, improved connectivity among the different parts of the campus, and better landscaping, signage and lighting.

This accelerated and improved projects that already had substantial support, such as the Farmington Canal Greenway and the Yale Police Station.

Some elements of the plan have not moved forward as rapidly as everybody would have liked. The Medical Center, for example, remains a detached island lacking the attractive links Cooper Robertson thought could be created along York and College Streets. Without substantial increases in the number of downtown businesses and workers, the slow but determined improvement of the edges of the campus is all that can be expected in the surrounding city. Other recommendations, such as improved lighting, should have happened long ago. But, thanks to the Framework for Campus Planning, Yale has moved far beyond the architectural star performances that are the current fashion. It is using the Cooper Robertson strategy to continue improving the quality of life and sense of community within this extraordinary urban university.

Adjunct Professor of Urban Planning and Management Professor Alexander Garvin has taught courses on urban planning for nearly four decades, including the “Introduction to the Study of the City” course. He is also president of Alex Garvin & Associates, a real-estate consulting firm.