Tearing Down the 'Town and Gown' Divide

Relationships with academia are important in Baltimore's and Atlanta's City Accelerator programs.
November 22, 2016 AT 11:00 AM
The Maryland Institute College of Art has been an important partner to the city of Baltimore during the City Accelerator program. collindunn
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

It was not so long ago – I can remember it well – when municipalities and the colleges and universities within their borders had a sometimes less-than-civil relationship. In fact, it was often compared to a small-scale “Cold War,” with each side viewing the other suspiciously across an often invisible, but still very real boundary. The attitude became known as the “town and gown divide.”

As an example, in the mid-1970s when I was a young city planner for Chattanooga, Tenn., the mayor asked us to work with local interests to map out and implement a bicycle transportation network. One of the improvements we believed would be well-received – and something that seemed quite practical – was a clearly marked bikeway through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) linking the campus to the central business district a few blocks away.  We excitedly made the pitch to university officials, only to receive a letter declining the proposal. They were concerned that it would encourage "outsiders" to cross their campus  – they actually used the term "outsiders.”

Still, it was obvious that cooperation between local government and our indigenous institutions of higher learning was in our mutual best interest. By the mid-1980s, when we were planning public meetings to discuss the greater transformation of Chattanooga, new and receptive leadership at UTC stepped forward and offered to be a central gathering place for our community visioning sessions. It was a perfect venue: not an intimidating city building, not somebody's church which might be seen as alien turf by nonmembers, but the university – right there in the middle of the urban area. It was everybody's space and it worked perfectly.

Kelly King, Baltimore’s City Accelerator project manager, reports a similar partnership for her community's civic engagement undertaking. I was expecting that Johns Hopkins University, one of the city's largest employers, might be the institution that they most relied on.  It was an obvious choice and King notes the school has helped.

"We've been using them to promote our work," says King, "and Hopkins will be our strong partner in the future.”

But it was a smaller school and one with a unique specialty that was more actively involved in this particular undertaking: The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and, more specifically, the school's Center for Social Design. Carly Wais, a student and project leader working toward a master’s degree in Social Design at MICA, says the school helps facilitate engagement in Baltimore communities by providing a "safe, clean space" for convening meetings. In addition, the school provides printed materials and white board facilities.

One of the goals of Baltimore’s City Accelerator program was to reduce recidivism by better engaging people leaving incarceration and their families. MICA has encouraged special groups to participate in the City Accelerator initiative to achieve this goal, including Here for Reentry, a project focused around creating a toolset for “returning citizens” – or individuals recently released from incarceration – to connect socially with one another, learn about quality social services and organize politically to advocate for issues relevant to their lives and their communities. Similarly, MICA has also extended its work to include an ex-offender group, Out4Justice, which comprises citizens returning from incarceration and works to create a receptive environment where individuals can share experiences and unique problems.

"People come back (from prison) and want to be part of something bigger" says Wais.

Baltimore’s City Accelerator initiative also includes a third element: the direct engagement of an important local foundation. MICA’s efforts are supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which provides Social Design fellowships and "invests in innovative people, projects and ideas that improve the quality of life in Baltimore and beyond.”

In Atlanta, the City Accelerator project has served a similar role in bringing together principals in local government and academia to achieve a synergistic relationship. Located in the center of downtown, Georgia Tech has served as a “Smart City Data Warehouse,” designing, building and hosting data analytics to help students mine the massive amounts of information gathered for the City Accelerator initiative and other projects and programs.

Georgia State University, also with a downtown Atlanta campus, is boosting the city's data gathering capabilities through a build out of fiber optics, which supports the use of sensors to collect information on a variety of social and physical issues affecting the quality of life in the community.

This data is critical for community leaders, who use it to make more-informed decisions. Terica Black, the manager of grants and partnerships in the Atlanta Mayor's Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance, says that by digitally digesting the data and laying out results on a spreadsheet it is much easier to tell what works and what doesn't, where coordination is lacking among city departments and how to develop more effective task force assignments.

Spelman College and Morehouse College – iconic institutions for higher learning in the African-American community – also have had an important role to play. Physically located on adjacent campuses within the central neighborhoods of the City Accelerator civic engagement project, these important schools are addressing the digital divide by lacing their campuses together with wireless connectivity.

In late September, an auditorium on the Spelman College campus was the site for the launch of the Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook – a 66-page guide described in its introduction "for those with a shared interest in building successful engagement processes and achieving broad and inclusive community engagement." The document was unveiled before an audience of local neighborhood leaders and city officials, along with the authors and other key individuals from Georgia Tech. It provides details and recommendations for approaching civic engagement from two viewpoints: community associations and service providers. The playbook is an excellent example of what can be achieved when government and academia work together.

Similar to Baltimore, Atlanta has another significant local institution playing an important role. The Atlanta Center for Progress is somewhat historic in its effective involvement in the inner workings of the city and provides an important additional element to bridge the town and gown divide and extend the impact by engaging the local civic nonprofit community.

It seems that many communities have moved beyond the tired old days of uncooperative leadership and animosity that once existed between cities and their local academic campuses. Instead of being an element of division, they are now finding enhanced roles as a bridge to a brighter, more unified future.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.