students run small, grassroots projects to get little things done. “We call
it urban acupuncture,” says Dr. Moore. “If we paint streets, it changes the
way you think about your city.” Word about their concept got out on social
media, the city heard about it and suddenly the duo had an office at city hall.
CityStudio Vancouver is now a partnership between six postsecondary
institutions, which send their students to city hall to tackle a project and
get school credit. Students have done “work that would not get done”
otherwise, including reviving an old idea for bike repair stations, putting
second-hand pianos in parks over the summer and piloting a red bin
program in a park to divert dog poo from the waste stream. Many CityStudio projects endure, years later, and have expanded (there are red bins
all over the city now).
CityStudio openly shares its concept, and five other cities have
launched their own chapters – in Victoria, in collaboration with the
University of Victoria, Royal Roads University and Camosun College; in
Corner Brook, Newfoundland, in partnership with Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus; in Waterloo and Brantford in Ontario, in concert
with Wilfrid Laurier University; and in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name
CityLAB, in collaboration with McMaster University, Redeemer University
and Mohawk College.
An array of administrative structures seems to suit city-building
projects. In Toronto, the presidents of the area’s four universities (U of T,
Ryerson, York and OCAD University) meet often, and they decided in
2015 to chip in to fund a study on student transportation. StudentMove TO
published its preliminary results in 2016. And, just this past August, the
four presidents announced a new, massive joint research project on
affordable student housing, called StudentDwell TO, involving nearly 100
faculty and students. (The four presidents also worked together on Lifeline Syria, which has now sponsored over 1,000 Syrian refugees.)
And then there are the countless small projects running across the
country. Such as the two groups of architecture students at Carleton
University that turned parking spaces into pop-up “parklets,” complete
with seating, flowers and rainwater collection, in 2016. Local business
groups funded the one-year pilot project, which aimed to convert 25
parking spots into parks.
universities that work to invigorate their regions do so out of “enlight-
ened self-interest,” says U of T’s Dr. Gertler. “Quality of life is one of our
most important assets, one of the things that helps us attract and retain
staff and students,” he says. These projects also allow students to pump up
their resumés. “They can use their project in terms of getting a job. It’s a
great story to tell in an interview,” says Dr. Moore.
Cities, communities and businesses endorse this work. When Dr.
Gertler first spoke of city-building when he joined U of T, he expected
backlash. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that these ideas really have been
embraced. I’ve gotten very little negative feedback.”
The only holdouts seem to be very traditional faculty members. “If
you yearn for the ivory tower model and being more dissociated from
community, you may see this weakens the academic mission,” says SFU’s
Mr. Petter, who adds that he disagrees with this notion.
Despite all this activity, challenges remain. As with any university
project, if it’s just one professor running it, it risks being lost when that
person moves on or loses funding. As well, students may struggle when
the slow work of cities and community partners don’t synch with their
deadlines. Dr. Brail at Ryerson spoke recently to a PhD student dealing
with a community group and a looming thesis deadline. “His key concern
was finishing on time.”
There are also concerns that the growing conversation around cities
is forgetting about the suburbs, which is where the country is actually
seeing the most population growth. Transit, poverty, diversity and other
issues in a suburban context can actually be much more complex and
difficult to manage.
Plans and projects can also get caught up in red tape and the competing
priorities of stakeholders. York’s Dr. Keil, who’s been part of a planning
group in the region for years, laments that “it’s difficult to see if we had
any direct influence.” He says he sometimes feels “we have to yell very
loudly for anyone to listen to us.”
Nevertheless, the demand keeps growing for city-building projects
big and small. Ryerson’s City Building Institute gets frequent requests but
can’t pursue them all. “I don’t have enough capacity,” says Ms. Burda.
Dr. Gertler thinks the dividing lines between the university and the
city will keep growing fainter, spurred on by needs from the outside
community, faculty’s desire to see more evidence-based planning and
student demand for local experiential learning. “I only see the tip of the
iceberg in what’s going to be a very powerful force in the university,” says
Dr. Gertler. “It is pushing us to turn outward and embrace our neigbours
locally and globally.”