University of Maryland: Blue-Sky Thinking for College Park

Of the long list of considerations architects must weigh when designing a building, flying cars have—so far—not been among them. Yet experts suggest that autonomous aerial vehicles will be less a fantasy and more a feasible mode of transportation within 20 years, influencing not only how we travel, but where we live, work, learn and play.

Clinical Associate Professor James Tilghman and his students took on the design challenge this semester as part of his popular undergraduate design studio course, “Aerotropolis.” It’s transit-oriented development on steroids, where imagined skyward hubs of commercial, institutional, cultural and residential activity welcome the autonomous and aerial mobility of the near future.

“Drone technology is already here in its infancy,” Tilghman said. “Could we see the first intimations of human aerial transport in the next decade? Absolutely. The implications on how we connect and travel will directly inform urban spaces and architectural design. Our mission as architects is to bring the beauty of this technology out front and center.”

Focused on two sites in College Park—a corner of Campus Drive and Baltimore Avenue and a wide field at the College Park Airport—student teams were asked to conceptualize multi-functional “vertical” communities that integrate UMD’s top-ranked research reputation, its agricultural roots and a diverse, rapidly growing College Park community for the year 2040. To create master concepts and designs, students researched an exhaustive range of topics: smart technology and virtual reality, the blockchain and human health.

The Aerotropolis concept was originally coined in Popular Science in the 1930s and later, repurposed by air commerce researcher John Kasarda as metropolitan activity centered closely around an airport. Tilghman’s concept is designed not only to get students thinking about the future of mobility, but also to offer a glimpse into the future of urban settlements. Previous years have attracted the input of Scott Plank ’88 and Ken Ulman, the university’s chief strategy officer for economic development; a concept from the 2021 studio earned one student an AIA Maryland design award.

Four master plans presented by student teams last month offered different, connected futures where man and machine intermingle in virtually every facet of daily life. Debunking the idea that buildings must be entered at the base, they offered multiple entry levels and both horizontal and vertical circulation. Drone technology, students found, reduces burdens on a small scale to help the building function, easing the transportation of materials and eliminating the need for service corridors.


Array vertical development at the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Campus Drive
One master plan, called the Array, is an eclectic Lego-like arrangement of stacked spaces with a wedge of open circulation that runs the length of the building, offering inhabitants a full vista of the building’s activity while creating space for aerial movement. Another concept, A.E.R.O. (left), offers an elevated building that showcases the full spectrum of food production, from research and growing to making and consumption.

“I was pushed completely out of my comfort zone,” said Alex Curry ’22. “The exercise of having to anticipate something that I don’t think anyone can fully grasp and the scope of where we’ll be in 20 years has really changed how I think. It’s turned my perspective of architecture completely on its head.”

Aerial skyways are more than likely the future of mobility, said Matt Scassero, director of UMD’s UAS Test Site, who was part of the studio’s master plan jury. While likely still decades away, considering the design implications now is critical for keeping pace with emerging technology.

“No one ever starts an innovation with a clean sheet of paper; it’s an evolutionary process,” he said. “We started from Orville and Wilbur, and we’re still building on that.”

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