How Universities Affect The Urban Fabric Of U.S. Cities

Beyond the rioting gear, police, looting, and violence, the images of the recent demonstrations in Baltimore depict a city crippled by derelict infrastructure. As in many aging American cities, many parts in Baltimore are characterized by urban blight, abandonment, and crumbling buildings — specifically the neighborhoods inhabited by low-income and minority communities. In a recent article in Architect magazine, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson traces Baltimore’s “policing of social boundaries through architecture” to the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s that occurred around the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art. By eliminating corner stores, restaurants, and other public gathering spaces, city planners believed that removing all activity from the streets would prevent rioting and keep students and the local residents safe.

This defensive method of urban design has undoubtably contributed to the city’s inequality and extremely disconnected communities. According to Dickinson, the architecture of Baltimore and many other cities around the country enhance a sense of fear and bigotry. In her article, she explains how “cultural institutions and university buildings hunkered inward” and, until recently, MICA’s neighborhood lacked the qualities of a healthy and active urban environment.

Image of Sandtown, Baltimore, via the New York Times.

Of course, Baltimore is only the most salient example of such. Earlier this year, the Atlantic’s Alana Semuels asked whether “Should Urban Universities Help Their Neighbors?,” exploring the complicated and important role that private universities play within an urban environment. In her article, Semuels explains how the presence of a university in some of the nation’s largest cities can lead to a complicated and strained relationship between the institution and the neighborhoods just beyond its campus borders. Unlike universities that are towns unto themselves — like Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill — urban campuses have neighborhoods that have changed over time by white flight and shortsighted urban planning, as in Baltimore in the 1960s. Abandoned buildings and lack of retail have proven burdensome for many prestigious universities around the country and have led to a reexamination of the responsibilities well-endowed institutions have with the economic stability and cultural diversity of its surrounding community.

In recent years, many universities have made positive strides to facilitate engagement and accessibility within their historically segregated neighborhoods. Dickinson cites the work of Baltimore-based Ziger/Snead Architects (specifically the restoration of the Centre Theater) as a step toward connecting its socially and racially diverse inhabitants. These efforts not only highlight the responsibility universities have to their local communities, but also illustrate the power architects and designers have to “make all of us … a welcome and vital part of civic life.”

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The Centre by Ziger/Snead Architects

Pratt’s Myrtle Hall, located in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, was designed by New York-based architecture firm WASA/Studio A and should be recognized as an excellent example of the beneficial role urban universities can play in the economic stability and cultural diversity of its neighborhood. Situated on a street that was referred to as “Murder Avenue” a generation ago, the architects sought to design a space that reflects the institution’s commitment to the renewal of Myrtle Avenue and openness to the surrounding community.

Myrtle Hall at Pratt Institute by WASA/Studio A

Well-known institutions such as the University of Chicago and Drexel University have also demonstrated exceptional efforts toward revitalizing their surrounding neighborhoods. Both schools are located in some of the nation’s most economically depressed neighborhoods — boarded-up windows and doors can be seen upon many vacant structures surrounding the campus and “old tires, potato chip bags and strips of yellow caution tape” clutter street corners and sidewalks.

Employee-assisted housing has been the primary tool the University of Chicago has used to combat this rampant urban decay. The program was initially instated to help employees find housing more convenient to their place of work. However, by diversifying the community, the efforts have now been recognized as “an effective way to stabilize neighborhoods and promote mixed-income housing.” In 2012, University of Chicago commissioned Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects to design a new art complex on the campus’s south border. The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts’s large glass openings and accessible art facilities provide a communal workspace for both students and residents of the South Side of Chicago.

The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts by Tod Williams Bille Tsien Architects

Philadelphia is another city with many universities located in blighted and disadvantaged neighborhoods. The NPR Cities Project is a weekly series focusing on city design and life in urban centers around the globe and recently produced a story on Drexel’s efforts to contribute to the revitalization of its local neighborhood. The University’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnership manages three refurbished historic buildings in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia and is equally accessible to both Drexel students and local residents. Once populated by an economically secure community, Mantua suffered in the 1960s from “white flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs.”

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By investing in the neighborhood, Drexel seeks to revitalize Mantua by repurposing its existing infrastructure. Today, the neighborhood feels as though it is “on the verge of a radical makeover” as real-estate developers rehabilitate vacant buildings and build retail, housing, and commercial projects on the neighborhood’s empty lots. According to students and the local residents, the Dornsife Center provides an educational resource for the local residents and lays the foundation for a more connected community.

Image of the Dornsife Center via
Image of the Dornsife Center via

Noted by those interviewed in both the NPR Cities Project and Semuels’ article, universities should be cautioned against development that can also displace longtime residents. As prestigious urban universities expand, high real-estate taxes have made the cost of living in the neighborhood more expensive, ultimately burdening its financially struggling residents. It will be crucial for developers, planners, and architects to balance the needs of those residents with the ambitions of a growing institution.

Of course, improving the way architects design cities alone will not fix the problems experienced by racially and socially segregated environments, especially in cities like Baltimore. Serious changes to policy and the views we have on cultural diversity must be put into action before we can ever achieve the peace and equality all of us continue to strive for. Nonetheless, the architects and all those involved in the design of MICA, Pratt, the University of Chicago, and Drexel University should be praised for their dedication toward achieving this goal.


This feature is adopted from Architizer.


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