My own view is… Higher education can foster urbanism

by Paul Ostergaard AoU

Universities continue to play a fundamental role in the development of cities, both economically and, importantly, as places. Not only have they contributed to the development of young settlements, but also their transformation.

My hometown is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1758 a British general by the name of John Forbes carved a road out of the forests and steep topography of the Allegheny Mountains from Carlisle to Fort Duquesne. This was a heroic effort to kick the French out and establish British supremacy in the upper Ohio valley. This road is now Route 30, known these days as the Lincoln Highway. His efforts provided an alternative to paths from Virginia and contributed to the early growth of this remote outpost. Forbes built a large fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and named the place Pittsburgh after British Secretary of State William Pitt. Early settlers chipped coal from the hillsides and, over the years, this plentiful fuel helped entrepreneurs build the largest industrial complex in the world.

As a centre of engineering, research and invention, Pittsburgh’s growth was led by corporations and supported by emerging universities. At the height of industrial Pittsburgh, fortunes were being made in massive workshops and integrated industrial plants producing metals, glass, tools and all manner of machinery. George Westinghouse invented the air brake. Charles Martin Hall invented aluminium production. The first full-scale atomic electric power station for peacetime use was designed and built in Pittsburgh.

In our post-industrial world, Pittsburgh has managed to transform itself into one of the most desirable cities to live, according to several national surveys. Our universities and colleges have been a major force behind this dramatic transformation. Founded by industrialists, these institutions are now centres of research in many disciplines and they attract students from around the world. The United States benefits from an independent and vigorous system of higher education with a wide variety of institutions and programmes available to choose from. To get into university an American high school student is now competing against a world marketplace of students. Nearly one million international students are now enrolled in American universities and colleges.

Universities and colleges must create campuses and learning environments that are attractive to prospective students and competitive with other institutions, hence an unprecedented growth in facilities. Now more than ever, students are drawn to cities. Urban schools have a market advantage over pastoral college settings. Students crave city life with its cafés, museums, concerts and public spaces. International students, in particular, are attracted to urban environments and are shaping retail and entertainment offerings in many American cities.

Urbanism for students is found in both large and small cities. Seton Hill University, a small liberal arts college in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, has its arts programs located in new facilities in Greensburg’s downtown district. Separated by about half a mile from its original hilltop campus, the school provides a shuttle service between the two locations. Students love the urban environment of downtown Greensburg and have occupied old retail space with art galleries and coffee shops. Their presence has motivated developers to transform old buildings into student housing and new restaurants. A new arts district is emerging. Tidewater Community College established an urban campus in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, that has contributed mightily to the rebirth of the downtown as a vibrant centre in the region. The streets are filled with students, staff and faculty that have revitalised an abandoned shopping district into a delightful urban neighbourhood.

Many understand the important role that universities play in the economic prosperity of a region. The coalition of education, research and business creates a powerful market force. But in addition to the formation of new businesses, higher education can play a critical role in urban regeneration. Positioned properly, our downtowns and neighbourhoods can become unique and inspiring places for learning environments of the future.

Paul B. Ostergaard AoU is executive vice president of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates

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