The Corner

Education

How Do Universities Affect Their Cities?

Birds gather on the partially frozen Charles River in front of the Boston skyline during winter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 6, 2014. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Universities & Their Cities, by Steven J. Diner: A Response

Conventional wisdom has it that a university is a huge benefit to a city — spurring the economy, adding cultural vibrancy, and enhancing the intellectual atmosphere. A recent book, Universities and Their Cities by Rutgers professor Steven J. Diner, makes that case.

But in this Martin Center article, Professor Stephen Walters takes issue with much of what Diner says. What Diner has overlooked, Walters argues, is that many of the socialistic concepts that have so undermined cities have their origins in universities.

“In truth,” Walters writes,  “many of the ideas that would prove harmful to urban vitality in the second half of the 20th century were born in academe during its first half, especially at L’Ecole de Beaux Arts at the University of Paris, where the City Beautiful movement originated. Its central premises — that land-use and design decisions could not be left to property owners and the chaos of markets, while large-scale projects and rational planning would inevitably promote efficiency and good citizenship in cities — were imported to America by L’Ecole students such as Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan. They were founding members of a ‘Chicago School’ of architecture and urban planning that would acquire great influence on policymaking in many American cities.”

Furthermore, universities in the U.S. have been big players in pushing interventionist policies that have done so much damage to our cities. The “urban renewal” mania of the 1950s and 60s was seemingly wonderful for big American universities, but did irreparable harm to the fabric of urban life.

Walters writes, “For example, the University of Chicago (among other institutions) lobbied aggressively for the Housing Act of 1959 because it gave them financial leverage: for every dollar a university spent to acquire land, demolish buildings, or relocate their occupants near a project, its host city could receive two to three dollars of federal money (that would, of course, be spent partially for the benefit of the affected institution). Hard to resist such a strong incentive to crank up the bulldozers and clear ‘blighted areas,’ even if one by-product might be an occasional sit-in by a civil rights group.”

Cities need the spontaneous order of the free market and the rule of law. Too bad that most universities are brimming with intellectuals who believe in central planning.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Most Popular