How Universities Are Advancing Urban Development

5 min readMay 3, 2018


Image credit: Flickr Contributor Blake R

Toward the end of the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s steel industry was headed for a decline. At the time, major universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh had tailored their curriculums to the city’s industrial prowess. But, by the 1980s, they were forced to redefine their priorities. In the wake of deindustrialization, Pittsburgh’s universities shifted their focus to scientific and technological research, creating new opportunities for economic expansion.

Today, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon rank among the city’s largest and most prominent universities and employers. But their work is far from over. Despite their increasing role in the global economy, most universities have yet to develop a clear strategy for partnering with their local communities. To aid in this dilemma, the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate convened a group of university leaders, advisors, practitioners, and researchers, who brainstormed the following solutions.

Balance vision and capital.

In 2016, Drexel University partnered with local real estate developer Brandywine Reality to construct Schuylkill Yards, a massive mixed-use neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia. At the heart of the $3.5 billion public-private initiative is a desire to make Philadelphia more inclusive by investing in job training, affordable housing, and employment opportunities for low-income residents.

For Jeremy Nowak, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, the university’s biggest challenge is balancing its vision and capital. “A planner in the U.K. once said all big comprehensive plans start with a great vision and end in a real estate deal,” Nowak recalls. In order for universities to achieve their goals for community revitalization, they must learn to work with those around them.

Rather than waiting on top-down changes from the national or state government, Nowak argues, universities and cities can drive their own transformation. It’s all part of what he calls “the new localism” — a term coined in his book with fellow urban expert Bruce Katz. By pioneering change in their own communities, Nowak finds, universities (and their partners) can spur innovation and capital worldwide.

Prioritize incentives over subsidies.

Decades of research have demonstrated a clear link between universities, regional innovation, and economic development. But not all universities have the same local impact. According to Ruben Gaetani, an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto, universities that add the most value to their communities tend to be located in major tech centers with a variety of residential services.

In recent years, university presidents like Drexel’s John Fry and Arizona State University’s Michael Crow have taken this information to heart by investing in the cultural and economic dynamism of their downtown areas. And yet, universities cannot rely on the vision of their presidents alone. To incentivize new talent, they must also advertise themselves as innovation capitals. In Nowak’s view, this goal cannot be achieved through massive university endowments or subsidies from the local government. In order to improve their local impact, universities must incentivize creative talent — the key drivers of innovation and economic growth.

Locate unexpected partners.

University-city partnerships are about more than the relationship between developers and academic institutions. According to Valerie Piper, the Vice President of Engaged Practice at Democracy Collaborative, the ability to quickly scale a project requires intermediaries as well.

In 2015, for instance, NYU’s School of Professional Studies joined forces with the National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security to launch the Aspire Program, a two-year college prep and mentoring program that provides scholarships for high school juniors and seniors from underrepresented communities. A year earlier, ASU launched The Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which allows local Starbucks employees to earn full tuition coverage for their bachelor’s degree.

“If the neighborhood is failing, the institution has the risk of failing as well.”

By convening local philanthropies, community organizations, and anchor institutions like tech companies or medical centers, universities can reduce costs while limiting the negative impacts of new development. “An organization that can act on behalf of and in partnership with a city is vital,” says Alex Feldman, Vice President at U3 Advisors, a consulting practice that connects universities, anchors, developers, and local government. “If the neighborhood is failing, the institution has the risk of failing as well.”

Cater to the community.

Beyond identifying an influential partner, universities must consider the specific needs of their local community. According to Feldman, problems of inequality arise when an institution begins to ignore the land it owns. Universities like Harvard, for instance, have long been criticized for driving up housing prices in their surrounding neighborhoods, resulting in “brain drain,” or the loss of students after they graduate.

In 2011, Wayne State University, along with the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System, launched a program called Live Midtown, which offered annual rent assistance or a down payment on a home to more than 2,000 residents in Midtown Detroit. Three years after the initiative began, the neighborhood achieved a 97 percent residential occupancy rate. According to Feldman, who helped conceptualize and manage the project, the majority of neighborhood residents — around 70 percent — are now choosing to stay in the area.

This type of community engagement benefits the university as well. While Duke Reiter, the Senior Advisor to the President at ASU, says his institution “felt an obligation to participate in every aspect of benefiting the [Phoenix] community,” the university was also deliberate about relocating colleges that would thrive in an urban environment. The same goes for NYU, which recently expanded its Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) to Downtown Brooklyn.

Deliver clear metrics based on a university’s role.

Metrics serve an important role in university-city partnerships, helping to define goals, update stakeholders, and develop a shared language between organizations. In New Jersey, for instance, the Newark 2020 initiative calls on companies to hire 2,020 local residents by the year 2020, giving partners a clear understanding of whether their target has been met. In Baltimore, the city government has also partnered with seven local universities and one additional anchor institution to form the Baltimore City Anchor Plan — a shared strategy for improving quality of life, business growth, and public safety.

According to a 2017 report by Democracy Collaborative, tracking a university’s impact on the financial and social well-being of its surrounding neighborhood makes for stronger community initiatives and more inclusive local economies. Without firm milestones in place, universities cannot fully identify the important work to be done.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of the Research and Advising for the Creative Class Group, an Associate Partner at Resonance Consultancy (Vancouver/ NYC), and a Senior Advisor for Leland Consulting(Portland). Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.

ARIA BENDIX is a writer for the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, Bustle, and The Harvard Crimson, among other publications. Follow her on twitter @ariabendix.