Growth or decline

Heard in City Hall, New York, on Monday 19 October 2015:

Last Monday, on the first day of the masterclass NYC in New York, we visited New York City Hall. The masterclass, initiated by the city of Amsterdam, studies the interaction between cities and their universities. Master: Zef Hemel, holder of the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam. Edith Hsu-Chen, vice-executive director of the City Planning Department, borough of Manhattan, and Edwin Marshall, senior planner, gave useful introductions to the theme from the perspective of the city. The expansion plans of all the universities in New York City on the island of Manhattan, Mrs. Hsu-Chen stressed, are most remarkable, and the city is facilitating all of those plans. The universities are important, a major growth sector and an economy in itself. A decentralized, more evenly distributed pattern is not aimed for. In fact, the city understands that all the universities have their roots in Manhattan, and wish to stay there. That means constant rezoning, because in the costly, densily built environment of Manhattan huge volumes of extra floor space are needed. It can only be served by high rise. But of course there is a tension between new campus developments and daily life in residential neighbourhoods. Take New York University (NYU) on Washington Square, or Columbia University in West-Harlem. They all serve as study material in the masterclass.

On Tuesday we visited Toni Griffin, director of the Max Bond Center on Design of the Just City at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. The center is based in Harlem, close to the campus of Columbia. Mrs. Griffin told us about her research on ‘legacy cities’ in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast of the United States. Some 48 cities are shrinking because they lose population and/or are economically depressed. Most of them are former industrial cities. Often they lack higher education or have to close down their colleges because of a lack of students. It’s a pattern of young adults leaving their hometown cities for college and not returning after graduation, or encountering obstacles to obtaining the educations needed to be competitive for local jobs. In America’s northeast, Boston and New York are the remaining growth poles, Carnegy Mellon University in Pittsburgh is also doing well, so higher education seems to be crucial in these struggling former industrial urban economies, who are all competing with the dynamic Westcoast and urban South economies. Size and density matter (all the fragmented land of Detroit fits easily in Manhattan), but also quality of the local colleges is critical to their economic future – whether it will be urban growth or decline. Even New York cannot ignore its universities. On the contrary, the city has to stimulate the quality of its higher education system by investing in it on a structural base.






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