Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

University campuses, college students and community organizing

Greater Greater Washington has been running pieces relevant to the master plan update processes for both Georgetown University and American University and I have to say that some of the descriptions of what is going on makes me sympathetic to the university master planners.

I have to admit that I have a bias about universities and neighborhood communities that somewhat favors the university. I went to the University of Michigan, and the city in which it is located, Ann Arbor, grew up around the university--at least in terms of central campus--so the community and university are better integrated than many, although there is no question that the campus is still distinct and set off. And yes, I lived in various houses in the so called student ghettos south and west of the campus (I never managed to live in a house north of E. Huron Street though).

Universities can be key economic engines in a community, although we have to admit there are costs.

For example, there is no question that the Foggy Bottom area has been for the most part subsumed into George Washington University. And when Georgetown University students and, admittedly, other younger people, but Georgetown U is blamed, leaving Georgetown's "nightlife establishments" after last call (2 or 3 am) on a Friday or Saturday night make a hell of a lot of noise, and do disturb the peace and quiet that residents of million dollar homes normally expect.

Typically, university master planning efforts are quiet affairs--a bunch of consultants doing a study and plan, with interaction with university staffers, and maybe with some public meetings, but not usually--until the plan is released, and then, if public approval processes are in place, the back and forth and outcry begins.

I don't think that's a very useful process.

In most places, university master planning processes tend to not be too public because universities are either private schools or state government entities, which often makes the institution exempt from local law. In DC that isn't the case, universities have to update their campus plan every ten years and there is a public hearing process.

1. Universities in DC need to open up their master planning process somewhat to include a series of public meetings dealing with substantive issues.

It might not bring about consensus, but having a more public process before it goes to the level of hearings would make it somewhat easier to address the various issues and plan more collectively.

2. I think universities and the city could do a much better job engaging each other in an ongoing basis. Note that some cities, Philadelphia and Baltimore (Baltimore Collegetown Network) in particular, have active programs that work to leverage the economic potential of college students as a creative force in the local economy.

Much of the interaction that comes down from a university is more about managing public relations. Much of the interaction that comes up from a neighborhood is about protecting the neighborhood from property degradation, etc., mostly from students and off campus retail and nightlife.

DC is unusual because its universities are bordered by very successful and in-demand neighborhoods. That isn't the case in places like Philadelphia (Penn), New Haven (Yale), and many other places. Years ago, Penn considered moving out of Philadelphia, because of crime and other issues. Instead, because moving the university was impractical, they realized that they needed to refocus their attention on connecting to and working to revitalize the neighborhood outside of the campus. In DC, universities are seen more as an imposition, at least today.

Next month, the International Town Gown Association has its annual meeting. The Lincoln Land Institute has an ongoing effort ("Universities as Developers," University Real Estate Development, presentation, "From Enclave to Urban Institution: The University, the City and Land")) that brings together universities dealing with land use issues that impact local communities (e.g., how the University of Connecticut at Storrs is building a "town center" or Ohio State University's High Street neighborhood revitalization project, or Mercer University in Macon's program of improving what had been declining neighborhoods surrounding the school). There is also a university network of urban institutions, the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, and it is telling that almost no DC-based institutions are members except for UDC--and none of the city's institutions have decent urban studies programs.

When I was involved in the Brookland Main Street program--both Catholic University and Trinity University DC are based there, as well as some religious colleges and Howard University is very close by--I wanted to organize a mini-conference on "town-gown" relations and land use planning, but I only had that job for about a year, and doing something like that takes more than one year to organize.

3. The Boston Globe has a bunch of articles including "Bonded by friendship, pair seek to build student ties" about how college student government presidents in Boston came together and created the "Boston Council of Undergraduate Student Presidents."

While this organization was more about the student government presidents reaching out to each other in terms of dealing with their universities, I think that such an organization could begin to build capacity and advocacy capability amongst students in terms of community issues that impact their quality of life as students.

The thing that makes achieving much success on the part of students difficult is that (1) students turn over every four years making the maintenance of change efforts difficult; (2) graduate students stay longer but are primarily at school to get an advanced degree; and (3) learning what you need to know to deal with local issues takes awhile, and students tend to not get interested in this til their junior year anyway.

In a place like Ann Arbor (and by extension Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison) student organizing is aided by the fact that many people come to the community for school but never leave, get involved in local politics, etc., and these former students maintain communication and other networks which current students can join and participate in and learn from, and in turn, the former students provide advice, technical support, etc., as well, allowing organizing efforts to be maintained over a period longer than a typical 4 year college career.

Building these kinds of connections, organizations, and capacity building and technical assistance opportunities is likely essential to making it easier for these various constituencies and stakeholders "to get along" and more importantly, work together.

That's the next step I think, if we want the university master planning process to work better for universities, residents, and the city overall, and to be better able to leverage the economic power of universities in neighborhood improvement, such as with Howard University and lower Georgia Avenue and U Street, or Catholic University and the Brookland commercial district.

(For years, I have suggested that Catholic U move their college bookstore to the neighboring commercial district, in the way that many universities are doing, ranging from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Penn in Philadelphia, to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia--even the University of Baltimore has relocated their college bookstore to a mixed use building, making it more accessible to non-students in the broader community surrounding the campus.)

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