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Up for Discussion: What Should Universities Do For Their Cities?

Zocalo Public Square

Haar_City coverThey should avoid being monastic

Can the ivory tower save a city? Not if it remains an ivory tower. Critical to the enterprise is the extent to which the university is not just “in” a city but also “of” it. This is as much a problem of architecture and urban design as of planning and policy.

The idea that a city would want to attract an institution of higher education in order to foster its own development is not new. As early as the beginning of the 18th century, the town of New Haven competed to bring what later became Yale University to the area and even constructed a building to push its cause. This building faced the New Haven Green. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century—when town-gown relations soured—that the university began to embrace the neo-gothic, monastic form for which it is now known.

Despite clear historical evidence to the contrary, in the U.S., “campus” suggests a space set apart. In order for universities to participate in the revitalization of American cities, this architectural and intellectual form must be turned inside out. Ithaca may not be on track to become the next Manhattan, but clearly Cornell sees the virtue of Manhattan (or its proximate Island of Roosevelt) as important to its own growth as a global research engine. The location of its new campus on an island threatens to replace inward-facing walls with water-based moats. New York City planners should ensure that greatly expanded infrastructure; accessible open space; and programs, incubators, and educational opportunities reaching out into the community are part of the ultimate design.

The Dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, Mark Robbins, refers to his university’s efforts as “textbook reweaving.” His school has been directly involved in numerous community-based initiatives around the building of sustainable and affordable housing; open space and new infrastructure; and the renovation of industrial buildings to attract new businesses, artists, and creative professionals. The Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy uses community-based participatory design exercises to help its city’s beleaguered citizens reshape their future. While these interventions may not “save” their cities, they draw on the university’s greatest strengths—the production of new knowledge and new graduates—to advance urban revitalization.

Sharon Haar is an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago (Minnesota).

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The City as Campus