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Universities can be the engine of urban renewal and development

By Edward Blakely - posted Wednesday, 1 September 2004

Greater Sydney from Newcastle to Wollongong is being planned for the next 30-50 years. This is not the first and probably not the last plan for this great City and its surrounding region. Governor Macquarie had a plan for the new colonial community. His approach to building a fledgling community lasted for nearly a century until the Cumberland Plan in 1945. Plans from Macquarie to this day are no more than guides or sets of directions that are meant to project a future for a place based on the best information of the time. Land and its uses were the foundation of Governor Macquarie’s plan to guide the fledgling colonial town. But the Governor’s very reliable land use base for his plans can no longer be taken as the basic or only base for a good city or regional plans today. Land use is only one aspect for setting direction for new urban metropolitan global regions.
Until the 1970’s most planning and plans rested on the segregation of land uses - factories and shops separated from houses and schools etc. In both agricultural and manufacturing eras it was believed that separation of uses was efficient for business and healthy for residential communities. Suddenly the very premise of this form of planning is challenged because the basic production unit is no longer the land or the factory but creative human knowledge. Thus, the central focus of plans and planning is on people and not just land. Land remains important in this new focus but a new planning vocabulary is emerging that places human intelligence and creativity as the central ingredient in plan making. It is in this context that the role of the university is transformed as a new and critical engine of the new economy and not merely the developer of talent for existing firms or the custodian of the past.

Universities will increasingly play important direct roles in the revitalisation of the regions' economy. I argue that these new roles transform the university into a multi-versity. That is an organisation that includes not only the development and transmission of new knowledge but taking a direct hand in the revitalisation of urban communities across the greater metropolitan region. This is not to say that the Vice Chancellors of our universities, or many university academics in the Sydney region, are not conscious of the need to become more directly involved in their communities.

The University located in the City vs. the City University
There is a long history of Municipal Universities in the United States. Just after the Civil War a Congressional Act (The Morrill Act, 1863) established the Land Grant Colleges and Universities that were dedicated to the mission of modernizing farms and communities in every state of the union. This network of universities now includes some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world such as UC Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State.


From the beginning these universities established programs to improve rural communities and city life. But few of them were located in big cities. As a result, the municipal governments of New York, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and other big cities established their own competitive universities with a focus on making the city a better place and in a sense advancing the science of urban living. Over the years these city-based universities took on genuine city missions and began to see themselves as important instruments in city life and civic renewal.

As US central cities faltered in the late 60s and 70s these institutions frequently became state operated but with a deeper mandate to transform the central city. In some cases these were private institutions like the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago. 

Located near deteriorating downtowns these institutions took on the goal of transforming city center areas. Now, the role of both public and private universities in inner city renewal is well recognized by every level of US government. As these universities have taken on very hard-core urban missions they have also become the catalyst and incubators for the new knowledge economy.

University as Economic Resource
Sydney’s core economy is knowledge intensive. Over a quarter of the nation’s GDP passes through greater Sydney. The depth and breadth of Sydney’s creative economy is mind-boggling. Sydney’s main business is producing, storing, re-organising information and creating knowledge laden products and services. As the knowledge economy grows, university leadership becomes as critical to our economic survival as any cluster of businesses, perhaps more so.

While it is easy to see the university role in producing new graduates and importing foreign students as a component of the economy, it is not so easy to see the university as an urban renewal agent. The reasons universities are becoming involved in civic renewal is that they want to both protect and expand their roles in the new economy by transforming the space for the emerging knowledge engine.

The Revitalisation Roles of the University
The physical urban landscape of the university with links to the city heart and surrounding communities is increasingly important to all city universities for several reasons. First is the milieu factor. A good deal of urban science is indicating that the physical organisation of space around universities, and not merely the presence of tech parks, is important to the development of new enterprises near the universities. No one can say exactly why this is so but there is mounting evidence that university investments in the physical and social space on their peripheries increases new business formation. An exceptionally good illustration of this principle is the transformation at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. President Ann Rudin and her team, with community support,  have altered the physical space around the campus with new buildings ranging from bookstores to supermarkets changing the area on the campus border from a scary derelict precinct to one of the city’s most attractive neighbourhoods.


Second, university engagement is not only in the physical environment. The University of Southern California (USC) has taken on the role of rebuilding its neighbourhood by becoming a partner in seven local schools. The University is the primary resource for these schools in almost every aspect of education including Saturday Schools for the children and English language for the parents. USC offers a free guaranteed scholarship for every child who completes year 12 with university level passing marks as long as the parents participate in adult education programs too. USC runs cadetships for local children in its various administrative units to motivate these youngsters to stay in school and stay out of trouble.

It is easy to understand any major urban university protecting its property investments and building new loyal entrepreneurs but most of these city universities are far more directly involved in civic leadership than that. Many city universities offer bonuses and special incentives to insure staff live in the central city areas to seed talent pools in local neighbourhoods. These programs are altering formerly depressed neighbourhoods in Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and other cities. Seeding these neighbourhoods with young professionals has brought a boom to many communities along with the problems that come from gentrification.

Community improvements have to reach beyond the campus to enrich the total civic environment. Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada has established a downtown education centre in central Vancouver that extends the day in a former run down neighbourhood which has been a boon for new residential investment as well as restaurants and other community amenities.

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This article is based on the Professorial Address of Professor Edward J. Blakely on August 17, 2004 at the Great Hall at the University of Sydney

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About the Author

Edward J. Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University. Professor Blakely is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also served as the Chair of the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel 2003-2004. He can be heard on the radio Sunday nights at 8PM on internet radio Blakely City Talk broadcasts the same podcast anytime.

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