Cities and Universities: Why the Town and Gown Bond Really Matters.

Universities are hotbeds of intellectual capital teaming with bright young minds that every city that they reside in would like to continue to recruit and retain. An inextricable bond links the two together and should be a seamless one although that’s not always exactly the case. In order for both universities and the cities where they’re located to maximize the benefits of this bond there must be a fundamental understanding by both entities that the two rise and fall together and that mutual respect, a collaborative spirit and a heightened sense of engagement must exist in order for both to be healthy and prosperous in a sustainable manner.

I recently began to work with an urban design firm called context that two friends and forward thinking architects out of Boston and Chicago formed early this year. As I began to do a deep dig into the cities we’ve taken a look at working in a common denominator started to emerge. Whether it was Rapid City, South Dakota; Cambridge, Massachusetts; or Columbia and Aiken in South Carolina, each of the cities we became interested in was home to a university. From there common themes began to emerge that I had noticed nationally through the years and heard locally in serving as mayor of Augusta, Georgia, home to Georgia Regents University.

One common theme was that local universities often felt like they weren’t fully appreciated by the cities they called home and that the city could be doing more to help the university. The feeling was mutual on the city side as cities felt as though universities weren’t doing enough community outreach while at the same time having to use municipal resources to address a somewhat unwieldy student population. Beneath the surface tensions could boil between students and townies or local residents who didn’t appreciate the infusion of a vast number of non-locals, both university students and employees, who seemed to look down on them. In doing a little historical research, I discovered that this adversarial relationship dated back to medieval universities in Europe. There’s nothing new under the sun I guess, but an interesting thought to consider how this paradigm has existed and repeated itself in city after city for centuries.

So how do we fix the problem? During my time in office I focused for nine years on establishing a strong working relationship between the city and the university having paid close attention to cities where universities had played a key role in revitalizing the urban core. Working with the university, our Board of Regents and our Chancellor Hank Huckaby, we were all able to come to a consensus, helped shaped by a master planning process, that all new expansion of the newly consolidated Georgia Regents University should come in Augusta’s urban core as this would be of the most benefit, both economically as well as simply locating students where they wanted to be, to the university and to the city. New student dorms are currently under construction and the citizens of our city, as well as the businesses in our urban core, are extremely excited for the vibrancy, the foot traffic and the inevitable cool factor this will help bring to our downtown.

The work that we’ve begun in Augusta to further cement the bond between the university and the city in order to fully maximize the potential of both entities in a collaborative effort has only just begun. As I continue to do a deep dive into the best practices and best outcomes I see in other cities I fully intend on making it a life’s work to implement those things here.

I’ve long been of the opinion that students should be more fully engaged with having a strong voice in the way the cities they reside in, perhaps temporarily or perhaps not, grow and develop in order to make them feel a sense of inclusion and ownership in the cities those in leadership positions hope for them to one day call home. There are ways to do this that I’ll begin to unearth in future posts but suffice it to say that the old ways of planning and adhereing to the status quo won’t get the job done and the process needs to be taken to them in the environments they’re comfortable in.

My goal has always been to make Augusta a living classroom for other cities to learn from at all levels and the strengthened relationship between the university and the city, given time to grow and flourish, will ultimately become a lasting lesson used to teach other cities that if it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.

Principal, Copenhaver Consulting LLC, former mayor of Augusta, triathlete, writer & runner focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.

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