How Canadian universities build ties to local communities

Across Canada, colleges and universities are partnering with local governments, community leaders, and entrepreneurs to build better cities, Diane Peters writes for University Affairs.

The city-building movement marks a departure from the inward-looking Ivory Towers of decades past, Peters notes. In recent years, the urban population's growth has spurred institutions to take on a larger role in cities' evolution, explains Suzanne Forteir, McGill University's principal.

Now, many schools are connecting with the community to address regional economic and social issues, says Shauna Brail, presidential adviser on urban engagement at the University of Toronto (U of T).

Many institutions no longer want to be a fortress within the city, but integrated into the community, explains Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University's business incubator, the DMZ.

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Peters rounds up a few examples of city building across Canada.

For example, University of Winnipeg (UWinnipeg) launched an office and classroom to recruit students in the city's low-income, predominantly indigenous neighborhood. The outpost has helped normalize the idea of postsecondary education and enroll local students in degree programs, explains Jim Silver, professor of urban studies at UWinnipeg.

Next January, the university will open a new complex offering university courses, programs for locals in the Oji-Cree language, subsidized student housing units, and shared recreation space with the community, Peters notes.

Other programs, like CityStudio Vancouver, help university students tackle community initiatives while earning school credit, she explains. At CityStudio, students tackle projects that "would not get done" otherwise, Peters writes. The program has chapters in Victoria, Waterloo, and Hamilton, among other cities.

Often, city-building projects call for collaboration between universities themselves. In Toronto, the presidents of U of T, York University, Ryerson, and OCAD University have funded a study on student transportation. The group published preliminary results in 2016 and recently announced a new joint research project on affordable student housing, Peters notes.

Institutions that invest in surrounding communities help build a quality of life that attracts and retains students and staff, says Meric Gertler, president at U of T. Community development projects also offer students unique experiential learning opportunities to take into job interviews, he notes.

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Although many schools are taking a larger role in local communities, challenges remain. Some students face slow government action that makes it difficult to keep projects on academic deadlines, Peters explains.

Others worry that a focus on city development leaves out suburban populations, which also host complicated transit, poverty, and diversity issues, she writes.

Despite detractors, citybuilding continues to gain momentum. At Ryerson's DMZ business incubator, the growing number of requests keeps the team at full capacity, Burda says. 

According to Gertler, strong universities help build strong cities. And as more schools turn outward and start embracing local and global neighbors, the lines between campus and community will only get blurrier, he predicts (Peters, University Affairs, 10/9).

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