The University and the City
Urban Crossroads #116



During the past few months, I have had the opportunity to attend academic meetings at both Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. Both are highly-regarded universities that are centrally located in their cities, New Haven and Philadelphia. The areas where the two universities are located, however, underwent significant decline during the post-world II period, particularly since the 1960s. Such urban decline affected other great American universities including the University of Chicago, Columbia University (in New York), and The Johns Hopkins University (in Baltimore).

In all these cases, the story is a similar one. A very simple version of it is as follows: because of a number of factors such as the significant increase in automobile ownership, the middle-and upper-class inhabitants of the areas around those universities moved out from the center of the city to its edges or to the suburbs. The few who moved in their place came from much lower socio-economic levels. A good number of buildings became dilapidated; many were abandoned. Crime levels rose drastically, and these areas essentially became uninhabitable.

The high crime levels directly affected those universities. It was often unsafe to even walk from one campus building to the other. Such conditions continued into the 1990s, but since then have undergone considerable transformations. This is very much connected to the revival of American city centers that has taken place over the past fifteen years. Of significance, however, is the role that urban universities have played in this revival.

During my recent visit to the University of Pennsylvania, I attended a presentation that a university staff member made about the active role the university played in rejuvenating the part of central Philadelphia around the university, or what is known as University City. He mentioned how the university bought properties around the campus. Not only did it construct the buildings it needed for its expansion on those properties (these well-established universities continued to expand and grow even during that period of urban decline), but also carried out projects that helped University City re-emerge as a vibrant urban district.

The university accordingly renovated a number of buildings and built new ones that housed residential, retail, and office functions. It rented out apartments at subsidized rates to ensure that a healthy socio-economic mix of residents live in the area. It also encouraged university faculty and staff to live in the area. It offered them significant financial subsidies if they bought a home within a certain radius of the campus. The only condition imposed on the recipients was that they could not sell their homes before a set number of years. This was to ensure that no one would use the subsidy to make a quick profit.

Today, the area surrounding the University of Pennsylvania is pleasant, vibrant, and highly livable. It houses a healthy mixture of residential, retail, and office uses. Walking through it and spending time in it is an enjoyable experience.

During the few days I spent visiting each of Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, I couldn't but think about the role that universities in Jordan can and should play within their urban contexts. I am particularly thinking of the University of Jordan in Amman and Yarmouk University in Irbid. The presence of these two universities has transformed their surrounding areas into busy, bustling urban districts. These districts support a variety of economic activities that primarily serve the university population. This is evident in the spread of student housing facilities, eating establishments, internet cafés, grocery stores, bookstores, and stationery shops in them.

While these universities clearly have transformed the areas around them, such transformations have been haphazard and unintentional, and are not the result of any conscious interventions they might have carried out. This is unfortunate. Jordan's universities should look into ways through which they can play a more engaged and well-thought-out role in the development of their surroundings.

To accomplish this, they need to establish a relation of partnership with relevant stakeholders, whether residents, business owners, or municipal authorities.

On a basic and practical level, universities need to partake in the responsibility of improving traffic conditions in the vicinity of their campuses. This is only to be expected since traffic congestion around universities is primarily the result of movement to and from them. They should contribute to developing public transportation systems that efficiently connect their campuses to other parts of the city. They also should build high-quality transit stations that serve the needs of the commuters to and from their campuses.

Universities need to participate in making the areas around them pedestrian friendly so that people are able to seamlessly, comfortably, and safely walk across the busy and heavily-trafficked streets that separate urban university campuses in Jordan from their surrounding areas.

Universities often make sizable investments in real-estate development projects. As they carry out these investments, they should assess their impact on the surrounding urban fabric and on surrounding communities. They need to ensure that these developments have positive social, economic, and physical effects. Universities for example can emphasize developing high-quality multi-use buildings around their campuses that combine retail, office, and residential space. This would allow the students, faculty, and staff to live and to carry out their daily tasks within walking distance of the university.

Universities should take on the role of enablers within their communities. They should look into ways through which they can use their significant physical and human resources to improve the quality of life in those communities. Jordan's universities, however, are totally oblivious to their surroundings. They often function as isolated fortresses that literally close themselves off from those surroundings in spite of the strong connections that link the two. What theses university usually present most prominently to the outside world are sizable gate structures, which are symbols of separation rather than linkage. This should not be the case. The country's universities need to channel part of their resources to the betterment of surrounding areas, thus playing a major and positive transformative role in their urban contexts. With this, they move closer to becoming institutions that are intimately and positively connected to their societies.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 05, 2011