Case Study: York University


The University

Type: Suburban Campus

The site chosen for York University’s Keele Campus was located on agricultural land outside of Toronto’s urban core.  The area was under agricultural use from the early 1800s to when York acquired the land in 1962 (Cultural Heritage Assessment 1). This piece of land was chosen because it was one of the few locations in the Greater Toronto Area where a 400-acre university site could be acquired through negotiations with only one major landowner (Report on the York University Site 5). Despite the distinct suburban nature of York University’s campus today, the planners in 1962 intended for the university to enter the urban realm. They believed that York would ideally be situated in an urban concentrated area rather than a “pastoral or suburban” campus (Master Plan for York University 20).  The planners thought that this condition would proliferate through the rapid urbanization of the area and the transition of agricultural land to urban spaces (Master Plan for York University 20). However, this result did not materialize and today York is often associated with isolation

The general layout scheme of the campus separates program through the use of a hierarchical system of roads.  The planners identified the fact that most people coming to the university would be commuters. It was established that the campus must have a main circulation system through which people could easily park their cars and enter the main campus cluster.  UPACE wanted all students to enter the campus through six entrance roads (Master Plan for York University 24).  They thought that once the students entered the parking area from these roads they would exit their cars and utilize the inner pedestrian roads (Master Plan for York University 24). The entrance roads would connect to the larger ring road, which was meant to accommodate for service traffic and visitors (Master Plan for York University 24). The ring road was proposed to function as a dominant organizational feature on the York campus. It separated the open space at the edge of campus from the tightly enclosed spaces of the inner campus. Alternatively, it also operates as a barrier between the inner campus and the city of North York at large.


Within the ring road exist pedestrian paths aimed at providing a humanizing and insular environment for the students at York. The paths systematically guide the students from the fields of the parking area to the quadrangles within the campus (Master Plan for York University 24).  In this system, students experience the campus as a place of linked courtyards and adjoining paths. The planners wanted students to feel comfortable as pedestrians inside the campus and thus each building is placed ten minutes from each other (Master Plan for York 14). This insular organization of space was meant to encourage an exchange of ideas and enclosed environment for the undergraduates to develop.

The landscape planning for York University was designed to shape the campus but also to integrate the outer ring with the inner campus. However, the differentiation in landscape managed to operate in the exact opposite way it was intended to. UPACE, with the guidance of Hideo Sasaki, indicated that they wanted the landscape to provide spatial continuity and transition from the outer campus to the central area (Master Plan for York University 54).  Alternatively, the landscape Sasaki suggested on the outer ring, a pastoral setting, served as a separating buffer from the inner campus and the outer city of North York. Sasaki moreover advocated for the creation of berms around the parking area, which further isolated the inner campus from its outer setting. The gradual change Saskai suggested did not materialize and the campus today stands as a secluded region especially in Toronto’s winter months.

Founding Philosophy

Purpose of education


York University was developed out of the post-war need for more educated citizens and the void of undergraduate education in the Greater Toronto Area. It was recognized that the city of Toronto, with a population over one million, was one of the few cities in the 1950s that had only one university offering undergraduate degrees (McCormack Smyth 6).  Additionally, the original committee for York promoted the need for increasing education in “new human and machine technologies” (McCormack Smyth 4).  As a result of these two objectives the need for a GTA university was recognized.  In September 1958, an autonomous planning committee was formed to develop the ideas around a new university (McCormack Smyth 10). Coming out of this committee the aims of the new university changed from one that was to focus on technologies to a liberal arts institution providing basic academic courses not professional ones (McCormack Smyth 8).  Murray G. Ross, York’s founding president, stated that the education at York was to “give special emphasis to the humanizing of man, to freeing him from those pressures which mechanize the mind, which make for routine thinking, which divorce thinking and feeling, which permit custom to dominate intelligence, which freeze awareness of the human spirit and its potentialies” (Ross 46).

Education at York was intended to develop a certain character and type of person.  Notes from early meetings indicate that administrators believed that the campus should create a “whole man” and a particular breadth in character (Notes of Discussion 1962).  In order to foster this type of personal development the administration believed that the campus must exist as its own city. They describe the campus as a microcosm of a city that encourages business in the form of the classroom, cultural opportunities as well as dormitory suburbs (UPACE Design Philosophy for York University). Through the role of the campus as a nurturing substitute for the city and the architectural environment planned, the planners at York University believed that they could foster and influence not just the academic development of the undergraduate student but their general outlook and shape of their individual personalities.


Just over ten years after the Master Plan was initiated for York the university began to see the problems inherent in the plan. In 1977 the university released the President’s Commission on Goals and Objectives. In this document they detailed changes that were needed in the academic objectives as well as physical changes to the campus. The document definitively suggests that the Master Plan no longer serve as the primary guiding document for the university (President’s Commission 65). It suggests that the vision set out by UPACE was not likely to come into fruition because of external conditions and poor planning for a strong vision.

Specifically, the commission suggested that some of the main campus buildings were poorly planned. In particular, they targeted the Ross building and the central square. The commission details how the central square was meant to function as a main gathering space for the campus but instead existed as a space that was too crowded, too loud, and ultimately unattractive (President’s Commission 71).  They also take aim at the Ross Building, one of the primary buildings on campus, indicating that it is poorly situated and architecturally inept for its purpose (President’s Commission 71).

No changes were made to the campus until 1988 when the IBI group presented the new York University Master Plan. This plan recognized that the university needed to be integrated into the community and no longer exist as a “separate and distant institutional precinct” as had been in favour during the post-war period (Cultural Heritage Assessment 13). Ultimately, this meant that the 1988 plan would abandon the concept of the ring road (Cultural Heritage Assessment 14).  The ring road was the largest barrier for urban integration with the university. IBI believed that by eliminating the ring road and placing an intensified grid of streets in the central campus area that York would slowly become an urban campus. However, the focus on the central campus and the simple step of removing the ring road did not ameliorate York’s problems of isolation.

York University Secondary Plan
York University Secondary Plan

In addition to changing York’s relationship with the outer urban area, the secondary plans suggested changes for the internal aspects of the campus. The plan criticized the university’s public spaces for being invisible and inaccessible and suggested that the university builds spaces that promote visibility and safety (York University Secondary Plan 22).  They also took aim at the streetscape, indicating that building intensification and public space could produce a more active and safe environment on campus (York University Secondary Plan 22). With these recommendations came the construction of Vari Hall, Harry Arthurs Common, and the Student Centre. Vari Hall was meant to serve as a “front door” to York University” (Tour York U).  Outside of Vari Hal; is the Harry Arthurs Commons. Its role is to perform as a primary public space and main communal area for the university (Tour York U).

Enclosed public space at the Ross Building, York University
Enclosed public space at the Ross Building, York University
Harry Arthurs Commons, York University
Harry Arthurs Commons, York University

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