Sunday, August 10, 2008

Universities Grade Themselves By Surrounding Neighborhoods

It’s encouraging that the University of Memphis has clearly adopted a new attitude toward the future of its adjacent neighborhoods, and hopefully, there will be a time when it shows up on the list of universities who are doing this best.

The “report card” to which we are referring resulted from the 20-year work of the University of Cincinnati to revamp its campus and redefine university community planning and development. The ramifications of UC’s work have been felt across the U.S., and surely, that university’s work is a signpost for our university.

To measure the results of the work of the Uptown Consortium in Cincinnati – which includes UC, city government, the Children’s Hospital Medical Complex, the zoo, the botanical gardens, the Health Alliance and TriHealth – the university identified a couple dozen case studies of leading institutions and graded them on 16 criteria, including community engagement, avoiding the use of eminent domain, economic impact, sustainability, historic preservation, increased housing, leadership, partnership, safety and urban design.

Grading The Graders

For example, University of Cincinnati got A+ for financial commitment, housing, partnerships, leadership and urban design; B in avoiding eminent domain and community development; C in community engagement, safety and impact on wider metro area; D in economic development and sustainability; and F in historic preservation and social capital.

Twenty-one universities were included in the report card because of their work and they include University of Akron, Boston College, Duke University, George Tech University, Johns Hopkins University, LSU, Ohio State University, San Diego State University, UCLA, University of Chicago-Illinois, University of Louisville, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, USC and University of Wisconsin.

No overall grade is given to each school, but judging from the scores in each category, the universities doing the best are University of Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and University of Pennsylvania.

The Obvious

Obviously, all universities should have a vested interest and be involved in their surrounding neighborhoods, but for a university like ours that bills itself as an urban research university, that should be especially true. In fact, one of the most important marching orders given to new director of graduate urban and regional planning Ken Reardon is to lead these efforts.

Fortunately, there’s a growing army of allies willing to get involved as the university repositions its front door from Central to Highland and works to be the catalyst for redevelopment of Highland between Southern and Central. One of these allies is ULI Memphis who earlier brought in the head of UC’s Uptown Consortium to talk about ways major civic anchors can improve quality of life and improve the economy. Certainly, as a major land owner in the area (across the U.S., universities own more than $100 billion in real estate), University of Memphis should be leading this effort.

For decades, our university has wrestled with how it can better connect its considerable intellectual resources and influence more deeply into the community to lead the hunt for solutions to some of Memphis’ most troubling problems. Often, like many similar urban universities, UM seemed like a walled city, and we can only hope that these first steps into community development will expand into even more ambitious projects.

Paying Dividends

The University of Pennsylvania has invested $90 million in its 40th Street commercial corridor, replacing a parking lot with a 300,000 square feet hotel/retail development. In addition, the university has produced more than 150,000 square feet of new retail space, more than 25 new stores opened in four years, a retail vacancy rate of less than 5%, and new streetscapes and landscapes.

If there’s any question that urban universities like ours are important, consider these facts:

• Of the more than 3,600 colleges and universities in the U.S., just over 1,900 of them are in the urban core

• 83% of students are in the urban core and fringe areas

• 87% of economic impact of universities are in the core and fringe areas

It’s All About Talent

Part of these universities’ roles, according to University of Akron President Luis M. Proenza, is to create environments near campus that help attract and retain highly skilled talent.

He could be speaking for Memphis when he said: “As you know, talent development in our inner cities is one of the most pressing national problems, and workforce development is the most often cited priority for business and industry. Our vision is to create a vibrant mixed use environment that blurs the boundaries between the university and the community, is pedestrian friendly and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness.

“As urban universities, we must acknowledge that the competitive and comparative advantages of our campuses are inextricably linked to the vitality of their surrounding communities. We must move beyond the traditional land-grant focus toward the necessary application of all disciplinary knowledge for the public good.”

To this end, Mr. Proenza suggests that universities should not be measured by “how many students we exclude but rather by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students; not by barriers between it and its communities but by the “collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future; and not by the “isolation of disciplines, but by their integration as applied in solving the problems of today.”


Anonymous said...

Part of the reason we have not advanced further in this is to very conservative nature of the U of M administration. Although President Shirley Raines is relatively new, she has ceded most of her power to the old guard, especially Provost Ralph Faudree who controls not only academics but much of the support operations.

This has stifled many new innovations, not only in academics, but also in better partnerships with city government and with the surrounding community.

Chuck said...

The University of Memphis has made a commitment to engagement with its surrounding district and communities beyond. A group of faculty from every college on campus has been meeting with neighborhood representatives for several years. Various classes have had student projects involving the neighborhoods of Memphis. Using small sites or the entire University District, students and faculty have focused on one goal- “Strengthening Community”. This is a major teaching and research focus area for the University.

Unfortunately the “walls” around the campus are being extended to Highland in a manner similar to extensions to Poplar in previous decades. Rather than a bridge to the community like at the Universities of Cincinnati and Pennsylvania, the University of Memphis will use its bulldozer to push the institutional footprint. This is due primarily to a campus Master Plan that was prepared in virtual isolation from the neighborhoods and the multidisciplinary faculty. The plan for development between Patterson (current western edge of campus) and Highland calls for campus-type land uses, which will push the neighborhood further away and achieve none of the desirable criteria in the University Cincinnati study.

Kelvin Oliver said...

I'm student at the University of Memphis and I believe that most decisions to improve and advance the University is needed; however, they should always look on the inside core of the university and seek students' voices along with advancing the campus as a whole. Whether we agree with their decisions, we should want the best for our students.

memphisj said...

Great post and very timely for me. I just spent the past week working on the University of Wisconsin campus, Milwaukee and greatly enjoyed the amenities the surrounding neighborhood provided. Memphis is certainly much different than Milwaukee but within a few blocks of the university I had great meals, sidewalk cafes, independent bookstores and more. Certainly some of that is within range of U of M, but the continuity with city/parks/university made for a really pleasant work week in Milwaukee.

Anonymous said...

On a previous blog entry, you mentioned the existence of a "Germantown Pkwy Plan." Do you have a link about that?

Anonymous said...


the link is under 'ignored plans created by OPD ca. 1978-2008.'

There are 64 listings.

Anonymous said...

Excuse my ignorance--where can I find that? When I searched that in Google, nothing came up.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, I'm asking for a copy of the plan that gives details on exactly what the changes to Germantown Pkwy would have been.

Anonymous said...

you should visit the office of planning and thinking..
City Hall, 4th floor and ask someone for directions to the 'library' where copies of 'plans' are available. some for sale, I believe. it's pretty dusty in there, so wear a mask.