How Colleges are Reviving Downtown

Photo by Nicholas I. Emenhiser

Downtown college campuses are a popular trend to follow for talent retention and galvanizing downtown activity. As this trend grows and becomes more successful across the nation, more research into particulars may be necessary to understand their effect on urban revitalization. It is clear, however, that downtown college campuses are yielding interesting benefits for cities such as Chicago, Richmond, Omaha, Cleveland, and Tacoma.

Many states have lost graduates, urban hubs such as New York, Chicago and Boston claiming those who have fled to pursue creative fields. This “brain drain” phenomenon has been a high-profile topic, as our most mobile sector of the economy has shown a marked preference in where they live, work, and play. In the past, the “brain drain” was seen solely as a function of job opportunities existing elsewhere. However, this phenomenon has recently been linked to the urban lifestyle and quality of life available in those places. If your community is losing young, educated individuals because another city offers better lifestyle amenities, why not develop those amenities in your own city?

The best approach is prevention rather than reaction—it is much harder to regain college degrees once a community has lost them. Though students seek metropolitan experiences like a performing arts scene, reliable public transit, and vibrant street life and culture, developing these elements benefits all city residents just as much as students and young professionals.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida talks about how jobs are following young, educated individuals comprising the “creative class,” as opposed to the other way around. Destinations that grow their “creative class” tend to be the cities that are producing job opportunities for young professionals. While this trend calls into question whether talent retention and job growth is best done by focusing on economic development or quality of life, the most successful cities right now are merging the two goals by taking a holistic approach that engages quality of life improvements from an economic development perspective.

The downtown college campus plays an essential role in linking town and gown. Having a downtown college campus that plugs students into the city’s beating heart can alleviate strained relations due to the often-transient nature of students. For example, students at college campuses in Manhattan will be likelier to stay put because they’re plugged-in to internship and professional development opportunities in New York City. Economic reasons aside, they probably won’t leave for somewhere more recreationally desirable. While NYC often gets held up as the quintessential urban mecca, the downtown college campus is not just a Manhattan phenomenon. Constellation cities such as Louisville or Boise, however, need to examine and improve their own assets to recreate their own distinctive urban experiences to ensure competitiveness.

Many urban universities named for large cities exist on the edge of the city or even in a suburb (i.e., UT-Dallas located in Richardson, TX, or the University of Dallas, in Irving). By not being downtown, they’re missing out on many urban benefits and amenities, including arts institutions and walkability. Instead of pumping funding into campuses on the outer edge, cities could allocate their resources to downtown campuses, creating a win-win situation for the college and the community. Perhaps the future of this trend rests with cities that do not yet have a local university and still have the opportunity to look for new locations.

In the case of the University of Washington’s new downtown campus in Tacoma, civic leaders wanted to revitalize a lagging area that served as a gateway to downtown by building a college campus that stradles “the Link,” a 1.6 mile light rail streetcar. In 2005, the Sierra Club named that campus America’s Best Development. While UW-Tacoma’s new campus is an example where the city in particular benefited, the ideal relationship between downtown and a campus has many shared benefits:

  • Students get plugged into the downtown job market
  • Internship opportunities are often located downtown
  • Access to the city’s recreational amenities (often with discount programs)
  • Increased attendance at downtown’s athletic, arts, and cultural events
  • Cultivating a talent pool that is uniquely geared toward and desired by downtown employers
  • Increased vibrancy on the street and a boost in urban development

Downtowns have historically been the central gathering point. Too many cities have strayed away from leveraging their downtowns for this purpose. Connecting higher education to downtown reaffirms the city’s role as a central marketplace for ideas, talent, entrepreneurial activity, and everything else that we find makes cities successful in this era. Though much focus has been put on eds and meds, many will argue that suburban campuses have equal weight in driving economic growth—but in driving in talent, the preferences of the creative and innovative could (and we believe do) serve as a great advantage for urban universities.

While it’s easy for us to see the positive benefit of the downtown campus as we walk its streets and experience a vibrant nightlife, benchmarking its benefits will allow us to see the true economic value of focusing efforts on improving these assets. CEOs for Cities in conjunction with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) published a study on leveraging colleges and universities for urban economic revitalization in the early 2000s (it looks ancient if you look at the PDF). While the report conveys some meaningful insights into the urban university playing a broad set of roles—such as employer, developer, and incubator—it would be great to find an updated look at the tangible benefits of investment in urban colleges and universities, and how these have possibly increased with the shift in lifestyle preference over the course of the last decade.

Sierra Club Names UW Tacoma Campus Among America's Best Development Projects
CEOs for Cities Talent Dividend
Leveraging Colleges and Universities for Urban Economic Revitalization: An Action Agenda

About the Author: Nicholas I. Emenhiser is an intern at CEOs for Cities and a student at Cleveland State University. He considered his own experiences and observations in this downtown campus as a supplement to this piece. You can often catch Nick commuting to work or class via the Rapid—Cleveland’s light rail train, with a coffee in tow, enjoying the amazing art institutions around him as he makes his way to the heart of downtown. He says his experience here in the city, while short, inspires him to potentially stay upon graduation, demonstrating the power of its distinctive urban environment.

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