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Can the University Help Make Better Cities?

By Alex Schafran | December 21, 2015

Oxford. CREDIT:Yann Caradec (CC)

Most major metropolitan regions in the world have a university of some sort. While not on the same level as religious institutions, government buildings, and marketplaces, universities have played historically a fundamental role at determining what a "city" is. The University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, is generally recognized as the oldest continually operating university in the world, and it is right in the heart of one of the densest and most mind-bogglingly urban places on earth. It was founded in 869 AD. The University of Bologna, at about 1,000 years old, is Europe's oldest, and it too is at the heart of the terracotta maze that defines the heart of a 3,000-year-old city. From the University of Calcutta in Kolkata to the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, if you want to find the oldest campus of the oldest school, go to the center of town.

The English propensity to cloister its scholars deep in the countryside (think Oxbridge), and the American tendency to emulate them, dulled the city-university connection in the Anglo-American world for a time, but this is no longer the case. Stanford may have been built on Leland Stanford's farm, but it is now the heart of Silicon Valley and part of a larger region of 10 million people. Even Oxford and Cambridge have been pulled into London's orbit. Today, many college towns are fully metropolitan.

In recent times, we have also witnessed a slow but growing acknowledgement of the need to change the role of universities in their cities and communities. In the UK, where I work, universities are talked about as anchor institutions, and are urged to interact and partner with local businesses, engage in social enterprises, help with workforce training, reach out to local schools, and "make an impact." In the United States, where I was educated, we tend to talk about university-community partnerships, often project-based initiatives centered on investment, local economic development, and the recognition that universities are major employers, land owners, and developers.

There is a significant amount of research documenting the good, bad, and ugly of these relationships between universities and their cities. While some universities have impressive track records of effective intervention, other big urban universities remain major forces for gentrification, "anchoring" their neighborhood by transforming it so that existing residents are displaced. In addition, many partnerships and project-based activities only last as long as that class, that professor, or that project exist. If you have worked in low-income communities near universities as an academic, chances are that a) others have come before you, and b) not much has changed for the better.

The question becomes: Can we envision a new "urban" university capable of really helping transform our cities?

Certainly, there is a way of improving the relationship between universities and cities. Part of it starts with rethinking the link. As the urbanization of college towns has shown us, the very nature of the "city" is changing. Living disconnected from the "urban world" is no longer an option, and instead of seeing universities as only partners of their local communities (and often, bad ones), we need to start considering how universities can help intervene more directly in the urban systems upon which we depend—housing, transportation, water, food, crime prevention, waste, etc.—not simply through inventing new technologies or training professionals, but by getting more involved in planning and producing these systems.

One primary challenge to this reframing is that universities are not set up this way. The problem is not that universities don't know how to get involved in politics and planning, or in service delivery. Many universities have world-leading experts on all of these subjects, often with real world experience and active partnerships outside the academy. The issue is that universities are generally organized around disciplines—ways of approaching a problem—not the problem itself. We study in a manner that is very detached from what the late French philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the "urban phenomenon"—the issue and the systems of urbanization. Writing in 1968, he called for building a new "urban" university, one that isn't urban because it is in the center of the city, but because it brings all scholars and practitioners together, regardless of discipline, around the analysis and understanding of this phenomenon.

Reorganizing formal learning is only one intervention. Here are four additional interventions I propose to close the gap between the urban university we have and the one it can be:

  1. Teach more widely. In order to produce a more knowledgeable citizenry in city affairs we must both integrate our classrooms—inviting non-degree students to participate in classes at much higher rates—and require students to undertake public education work as part of their degree requirement. An urbanized world demands that citizens, consumers, residents, activists, and leaders understand urbanization well enough to make informed decisions and to effectively participate in public affairs.

  2. Encourage new media. The university must re-envision itself as the central place in an online world where people come to learn about the making of our cities. Universities have the opportunity to step into the void, helping remake how knowledge and ideas about cities and urbanization are disseminated. University of Oregon's Sustainable City Year Program has begun to think in these terms, incorporating the journalism school into the world around it. UC Berkeley's Journalism School runs Richmond Confidential, a hyper-local site which has become invaluable for news about an under-served city. But much bigger and bolder approaches are possible and necessary.

  3. Who is in charge of participating? Democratic decision-making about urbanization faces two major problems. First, ideas and proposals come from a small elite. Second, states act as both the conveners of the conversation, and the decision-makers. But I believe there is a third way. This would entail inviting public universities to play a role in running participatory processes revolving around urban issues. The discussion about what needs to be done at the city level could benefit from a diverse array of voices. Good debate takes time, and the decision-makers and "implementers" a.k.a. city officials and policymakers don't always have the time. The urban university has the potential to position itself at the center of a more inclusive conversation capable of functioning at the slower pace democracy often requires.

  4. Get involved in long-range planning. It is getting harder and harder to plan long term. Local governments often don't have the resources for long-term planning. Universities often have the knowledge, time, historical roots, and people to help with long-term thinking. In the words of Robert Shibly, dean of the Buffalo School ofArchitecture and Planning, universities are "the agent that doesn't go home when the project is done." Universities need to play a greater role here, and it is a great use of academic time—we are famously slow. Working inclusively and bringing in representatives from across the urban spectrum, the university could contribute much more to long-range planning.

There is no formula for a sustainable city. What makes some cities better than others is not only good ideas, but the fact that they have been able to implement them. Most of the institutions for intervening in cities aren't ancient—they were invented relatively recently, often in the 20th century. It's 2015 now, and we need 21st-century institutions for 21st-century urbanization and cities. If we have the courage to reimagine and remake them, universities can be at the heart of this project.

Read More: Cities, Development, Ethics, Globalization

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