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January 12, 2008

« Latin Connection | Main | But, I Want it NOW! »

My latest Globe and Mail Toronto visit piece is out:

"If you asked me to name the most unique thing about Toronto's spatial structure, its geography, its regional urban character, it's this. It's the fact that it has a world-class university that is a seamless part of its geography. There are very few cities and universities in the world that can say that."

Click for the here for the article, and here for the slide show.

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MPS

Richard - this is a fascinating discussion that delves even deeper into the town-vs-gown issue and is a real eye-opener on how UofT operates in the urban context of Toronto.

I am wondering how much this is a function of how "elite" universities in Canada operate vis-a-vis comparable ones in the U.S. I totally agree that, particularly with private elite institutions in dense urban areas, there is much to be desired in terms fitting into the greater urban context. I was struck, when visiting my brother who was at MIT at the time, how much his campus was well-integrated spatially into Cambridge (despite several awful modernist buildings), and how Harvard's campus, with its perimeter of black wrought iron fence, felt like it was almost literally turning its back onto the town. Universities in Canada, now matter how high-quality and elite, do not seem to give off that "ivory tower" or "high secular priesthood" vibe. But they are still wonderful institutions - UofT, Western Ontario, Waterloo, McGill, UBC, Simon Frasier, etc.

I'm wondering if flagship state universities are a bit better on this point. I'm familiar with how the Univ. of Virginia in Charlottesville and the Univ. of South Carolina in Columbia are situated - there are of course still major issues. The Univ. of South Carolina is gobbling up considerable amounts of land to build a major research campus, and the college is known to arrogantly defend its interests - like not wanting to share neither its new baseball stadium with a local minor league team, so there are two baseball stadiums near each other in a relatively small city! However, I think these institutions are still much better integrated - culturally, socially, economically - with their larger cities/metros than the Yales, Penns, and UChicagos of the world. Columbia has three distinct downtown neighborhoods that are within walking distance of the University, and the streets, blocks, etc. flow relatively smoothly, if not seamlessly (there are still better "linkages" to be made. It's too bad that the University is more known for its law and business programs, and the state's premier urban planning and architecture school is Clemson (150 miles away)

Unfortunately, there are some urban state universities that aren't doing a great job - the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago has ruffled many feathers by its aggressive expansion/gentrification into a working class Mexican neighborhood.

Richard - could you point out any good examples in the US of good urban town-gown economic integration? Where the college is a good contributor to the economic ecosystem?

I'm also wondering if Australian universities are similar to Canadian ones in this respect. They also seem to have high quality but not too-elite institutions like ANU and Monash.

uptown

Richard

Welcome to Toronto. It's great to see (and hear) your insights on our town.

My only hope is that in this series, you venture north of Bloor and explore the areas of Toronto where some of the elements that truly distinguish us (our diversity, for example) live and thrive every day. Scarborough and the exploding Chinese communities that are transforming the landscape north of Steeles are but two.

thegenerator

I found your article about my alma mater resonated with my experiences at UofT. Thank you for sharing your insights - I had thought all universities offered opportunities to learn and interact and grow. A pity that is not the case; all the more reason for you to point out this uniqueness. The universities here in the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East have followed the town-gown separation model and are now taking steps to integrate more closely with their communities.

Will bookmark your site - and looking forward to future posts. Again, my thanks,

RF

Uptown - Absolutely: I will. We are discussing options now. Interesting feedback on this column over at the Globe, nearly a total contrast to MPS' comments. Over there comments are "what's new," "of course," "we have other urban universities." Part of that is .. well ... those are write in comments to the Globe. But it may signal a difference between Canadian and US university-community relations. And MPS' comments reflect that. My sense is that having the UofT (or other great universities) in a downtown environment is an asset for the future as we move to a creative economy. My belief is that it will increase the probabliity that a community will succeed on a 3Ts. More to come ...But I find this to be a big difference in the urban systems of the two countries.

Matt

I'm surprised no one mentioned Ryerson, a stone's throw from your last visit to Dundas Square. It doesn't even disrupt the street grid (having much more humble roots than UofT). It's at its most integrated every September when the Film Festival uses its large theatre as a venue for film premieres, so you'll see both new students and new festival-goers wandering the campus, equally lost.

Of the others mentioned, McGill is similar to UofT, but UBC and Simon Fraser are quite removed from central Vancouver (the latter is on its own little mountain). Many others are in smaller cities. It's interesting that MPS includes Waterloo in a list of "elite" schools -- it's only been around for 50 years, so the generations of alumni are limited and the campus is aesthetically uninspiring. Its reputation is built solely on the quality of its programs. I've also heard it described as "hard-core", which might be a more Canadian way of seeing it.

And every single Canadian university mentioned is public. (The private ones are very few and quite small.) I'd say that makes a big difference.

RF

Matt - I mentioned Ryerson and the Ontario College of Art and Design in my original pitch for the piece. There is also talk that George Brown could move some activities to the waterfront. We also talked about it. I said: it's not just UofT, it's the way that so much intellectually-creative activity is part - an organic part -of the city's urban fabric. This, I said, was a sharp contrast to much of the US where urban universities are "walled off" from their communities, and where the thinking seems to be that suburban style incubators are required for innovation.The point I made is that moving forward Toronto, because of this evolved spatial structure, may well have a big advantage in this seamless connection between gown, sot speak, and gown. And that goes beyond UofT, absolutely. My hunch is the Globe editors went for a more "coherent" piece.

The City Gal

Looking at UofT from a different perspective, having the university downtown Toronto (the political/economic/multi-cultural heart of Canada) provides inspiration to students and the programs run.

Many high school students or foregin graduate students ask me where in Canada they should apply for architecture, engineering, business, history and political science. My answer really depends on what they would like to get out of their education. If the goal is more than "just a degree", the experience of living and breathing downtown Toronto has a lot to add to one's education.

Downtown Toronto is where things happen all time, whether it is a political event, a cultural festival or another international symposium. The fact that the city is not too far from American cities such as NY is a bonus, as an international hub. Many professors at UofT have incorporated the local events in their curriculum to enrich the students' educational experience.

I am surely proud of my City and my University.

Matt

Richard, interesting... thanks for filling in the missing bits of the story.

Frank Godfrey

Dr. Florida, do you read the comments on your series that appear on-line in the National section ? The negativism towards " all things Toronto " is an interesting phenomenom. When I comment positively to your series, I feel like I need body armour.

RF

Frank - I read them all. This story was in the top 10 most e-mailed at the paper. I don't mind that people feel strongly. The negative ones are most likely to write in. So that's why it's important for you to speak up. Keep that body armor honed!

Walt

Matt's point regarding Ryerson is well taken. It is completely integrated into the city, and Sheldon Levy, the president, has explicitly stated that he wants this to continue. Rumor has it that Ryerson is taking over the building on Yonge recently vacated by Future Shop.

Ryerson Theatre indeed serves as one of the locations for the Film Festival. Interestingly, another one is the Isabel Bader Theatre at U of T, on Charles Street. Hopefully these will continue to be used as film venues after the new headquarters for the Film Festival is completed. I think it's great that the festival is spread out around the downtown.

The skating rink in the middle of the Ryerson campus is one of those absolutely fascinating little touches.

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