The Town/Gown Divide - Taking the University into City Governance

June 12, 2006 · by DesignIntelligence

As a public, urban institution, the UWM School has always tried to be relevant to its context; using the urban laboratory as a focus for many of its studios and trying, wherever possible, to positively affect the physical environment.

As a public, urban institution, the UWM School has always tried to be relevant to its context; using the urban laboratory as a focus for many of its studios and trying, wherever possible, to positively affect the physical environment.

Over the years, there have been notable successes. Projects that began as theoretical notions in the school have led to real programs, such as the new Third Ward Market or, most significantly, the removal of an inner city freeway and its subsequent redevelopment. Similarly, the school's community design center undertakes dozens of minor projects each year in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee, and faculty have been influential in affecting physical change, from the development of area plans to the selection of architects to undertake major projects, most notably Santiago Calatrava's extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Despite the healthy influence of the school on the city, however, the ability to influence decision-making at the high level has been sporadic over the years. While the Dean of the school served as Chair of the City Plan Commission and several faculty served on the Historic Preservation Board, actual representation at a policy level has been predictably hard to achieve, as the worlds of academia and politics do not normally intersect on a consistent basis.

An experiment in Milwaukee to bring town and gown into direct partnership is currently underway. Following his election in 2004, Mayor Tom Barrett asked me, as Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, to assume the position of Director of Planning and Design, in addition to my existing duties at the school. The idea, based on discussions as to the role of the University in the city, was to bring as much school expertise into physical planning and design as possible, thereby creating a structural partnership between the two institutions.

Currently in its second year, the experiment is going well. I spend half my time at the city (the Mayor provides buyout of my UWM time that enables the hiring of new Associate Deans) joined by Service Scholars, students gaining intern experience in the Department of City Development, and faculty advisors wherever possible. The influence of the faculty on new development is supplemented by the close coordination of future city planning and building direction with studio and class project assignments. The new alignment means that more than 25 projects a year are undertaken in the school that directly speak to potential development in the city. These are in addition to an equal number of neighborhood design schemes produced by Community Design Solutions, the school's neighborhood design center which also works closely with city personnel.

The integration of faculty/student expertise with city development is not a new concept, but the creation of a structural relationship which takes the school directly into the Mayor's office is a powerful one that continues to evolve In fact, the success of the experiment to date has lead to a dramatic expansion of the program into "City + U: Milwaukee's Town/Gown Connection." The Mayor has now asked that I develop the partnership between City and University beyond the confines of the physical development to encompass health, education, the arts, economic development and information technology - to, in effect, engage the whole University in Milwaukee government.

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