East, West and the space between them
After 40 minutes of squishing in the remaining corner of an overcrowded C-1, there was only one obstacle between me and the promised land of West Campus: Ken Jeong.
The popular alumnus was attracting hordes of students to a Duke Arts Block Party, which happened to be blocking off Campus Drive, an important artery connecting the East and West campuses. Hence the 40-minute C-1 ride: starting on Campus Drive before encountering the Block Party, then heading back east, getting stuck on Main Street, swerving through the H-Lot, crawling down Flowers Drive, and finally arriving To Abele Quad.
“Where are we?” asked the first years next to me, who had mistakenly believed that the roundabout was part of the initiation ritual with the scale and the coin. “We’re on a campus,” I answered to the skeptical looks. Looking out the window, it certainly didn’t look like any campus, let alone a The majestic gothic wonderland that is Duke’s DNA.
The remains of the buildings – their exposed foundations now covered by brambles and weeds – dotted the landscape. Beyond that, a vast sea of asphalt devoid of cars and people stretched across the horizon. We were in the heart of Central Campus.
Despite its current state of disrepair, Duke University can leverage the prime location of its central campus to create one cohesive, walkable campus that will serve as a gateway between Duke and Durham. By attracting pedestrians and cyclists, creating new facilities on Central Campus to support these sustainable modes of transportation will revitalize this rarely traveled space.
Since the demolition of the Central Campus Apartments in 2019, Central Campus has struggled to retain significant foot traffic, which is essential (no pun intended) to the success of any college campus or urban area. The apartments, which were built in the 1960s before succumbing to rot, have generated significant social engagement that has made the area feel more welcoming. While there are many pedestrians along the Campus Drive corridor, few veer onto the central campus streets, so why should they? Perhaps to visit the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), the HR Learning and Organizational Development (L&OD) headquarters or one of the patchwork of underutilized buildings? Currently, few students see the need to visit Central Campus, keeping it in a perpetual state of stagnant campus.
In fact, Central Campus is ideally located among multiple pedestrian walkways, making it a great candidate for a walkable community. Believe it or not, the Abele Quad is located just one mile from the 9th Street commercial corridor, making the trip easy to make. However, few Duke students would consider venturing from West Campus to Ninth Street, likely because of the confusing turns and plethora of parking lots on the way, not to mention the sweltering heat and unforgivable weather. The lack of foot traffic discourages even brave pedestrians, since empty streets are perceived as more dangerous.
Likewise, East Campus is only 1.4 miles from Abele Quad when traveling in a straight line. However, the trip east via Campus Drive is 1.8 miles, which swings unnecessarily south and makes walking impractical for most people. Meanwhile, the 1.4-mile route runs past Duke Hospital, Duke Gardens and Swift Apartments, all prime destinations on campus. If Duke University linked these institutions together with a trail for hikers and bikers, students and staff alike would flock to this convenient and sustainable alternative instead of being crushed in a C-1 or paying an arm and a leg for parking.
These components of success have made Central Campus a topic of interest for urban planners and Duke students for generations. The 2003 Master Plan reimagines Central Campus as a walkable “urban village,” complete with a monorail connecting it to the east and west. Nine years later, another group of urbanites proposed building a mixed-use neighborhood where all the essentials would be a five-minute walk away, inspired by Oxford’s legendary High Street. Last year, Lana Jesinski, president of Duke University’s student government, proposed building a social life space as part of the Fun@Duke initiative.
What about the environment? Wouldn’t Duke have to cut down vast swaths of virgin forest to unlock the potential of the central campus, as has happened in other expansions? Of the 200 acres on Central Campus, 31 are designated for parking and 32 I classify as “urban wastelands,” which are essentially the ruins of Central Campus apartments. Redevelopment of these areas would not do significant harm to the environment, particularly in light of the role of parking as a contributor to the urban heat island effect and drivers of Durham’s stormwater management problem.
The Central Campus redevelopment project would advance Duke’s commitment to sustainability expressed in the Duke Climate Commitment and the goal of supporting Durham through the Office of Durham and Community Affairs. The central campus serves as a wall separating Duke and Durham, hindering the exchange of people, commerce, and ideas. Transforming Central Campus into a pedestrian haven would suddenly make neighborhoods like Crest Street and Porsche Street seem tangibly close to West Campus.
While a comprehensive overhaul of Central Campus would radically elevate the Duke experience, Duke clearly does not want to spend money to fund such a large capital campaign, according to Central Campus staff. But there are smaller projects Duke University can undertake to make the central campus more accessible without committing billions of dollars.
First, building an east-west biker path through Swift and Central Campus would reduce congestion, reduce commute times and enhance sustainability. Second, creating amenities such as a community venue, a second Duke Campus Farm location, and a small-scale commercial corridor along Erwin Road would encourage students to venture to Central, connecting it to the rest of campus. Finally, investing in low-cost pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure would make the area more welcoming and safer. This will include adding bike lanes along Campus Drive (where heavy bus traffic makes biking difficult) and painting crosswalks over the NC-147 access ramps near the Swift Apartments.
Duke University is known for the distinctive, majestic and tranquil atmosphere of both the East and West campuses. Small investments in the central campus could bring it to that level as well without sacrificing environmental quality. Duke can transform Central Campus from a vacuum that divides East, West, and Durham into a center that unites all three, and lift all three into a new era of dynamism.
Aaron Siegel is a sophomore at Trinity. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays.
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