The presence of an urban research university has been conventionally regarded as the foundation for economic growth of any large city. It is “the heart of the story” for the fortune of successful high-tech regions. It is a “key actor” in revitalization of urban communities. It is “one of the most powerful engines” that drive innovation in the knowledge economy. And so on. With such a vital role, an institution of higher learning is not just cultivating scholarship and skills in the next generation of the workforce, but nurturing the city itself through intellectual, economic and cultural osmosis.
As the demand for higher education among the next generation grows, so too does university enrollment. A 2007 survey found that over a third of urban university campuses are in the process of expanding outside or on the periphery of traditional campus boundaries. However, when it comes to campus expansions, there is often a tension between the internal (faculty, students, staff) stakeholders and external (neighbors, community, labor and business groups) stakeholders. An often debated expansion is that of the Columbia University campus. There were extensive negotiations of with the Harlem community about community benefits, primarily to address concerns about neighborhood gentrification and student housing. Given that billions of dollars are spent on campus construction nationally, controversies such as those with recent expansion plans of UC Santa Cruz and University of Washington are also common.
The notion of an urban university campus is changing. Far from the “ivory tower” of secluded campuses indifferent to their surroundings, urban universities can be living laboratories for community benefits. This takes place not just within the classrooms but also in the “town-gown” collaboration and engagement in land-use planning and development that treats each other as equal partners. In this sense, the host city places the university as part of its public identity, and the hosted university in turn places the city in a global context through placement of its graduates and research. This symbiosis occurs in a critical period of the “information age” where physical places of higher education are competing for relevance in virtual learning environments.
The key to productive town-gown engagement is to make participatory processes more meaningful. These processes need to expressly empower communities through grassroots organizing, coalition building, and democratic deliberation. Community benefits agreements are emerging models of this empowering process. These are agreements between community coalitions and public or private developers.
When the University of Southern California (USC) embarked on a $700 million campus expansion over 15 acres into a neglected community, it engaged in an unusual public-private partnership with the extra-mural community. An agreement was reached over the project, called USC Village, and the resultant community benefits terms were included in the Development Agreement with the City. According to a joint statement with USC and UNIDAD Coalition announcing the terms of the agreement:
USC, the UNIDAD Coalition, and other community stakeholders have engaged in an ongoing dialogue in the spirit of establishing benefits that improve the quality of life for residents and University students, in and around South Los Angeles. A collaborative public process has played a key role in bringing about these community benefits that will provide critical investments in the local community.
The promise of community benefits helped win over local community, labor and business leaders, and the City Council unanimously approved the USC Village plan in 2012. The project was completed last year. An evaluation of USC’s community benefits commitments showed that the university fulfilled most of its 28 commitments, though there is still some progress to be made on long-term benefits. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times:
To get the community and city on board with USC Village, the largest of his proposed projects, he put forward an unusual public-private partnership. Though Dr. Nikias had fielded proposals from eager private developers, he decided instead that the university should make a greater financial investment.
As a result of the community benefits program, of the 4,000 construction workers who helped build USC Village, 38 percent were from within a five-mile radius. Many of them have gotten work with other contractors in the area after their various parts of the project were finished. The project’s labor agreement also provides for preferential hiring of military veterans, the formerly incarcerated and “disadvantaged” workers, including minorities, people with disabilities and those with a history of homelessness.
The success of the community benefits program is being replicated in other USC projects, such as the $300 million renovation of the Los Angeles Coliseum. There was extensive community outreach, which led to more local construction workers being trained on the project.
Even more so than the specific outcomes, the community benefits process itself can be transformative in terms of community development. The university expansion itself, such as that proposed by San Diego State University can be laboratories of democratic participation at a time when the lack of involvement in civic life has led to declining effectiveness of democratic institutions. Effective means of involving stakeholders, leading to the sharing of power into project-specific decisions, is generally missing from the traditional planning system. Recent experiments in direct citizen participation actively solicit participation. They also empower the civil deliberators with a voice in the decision-making process.
Working towards equity integrates the university campus within a community as a place to live, learn and work. This motivates greater engagement of the community in planning and becomes a vehicle for empowerment. It’s a virtuous cycle that builds more equity both within and outside the campus boundaries.