Skip navigation
In my opinion

Universities should maximize their role as city-builders

The city-university link is critical to the restructuring of higher education institutions.


Universities and cities are often perceived to be in a close family relationship but, as in all good families, that can be complicated. In the past, these relations were captured in the benign-sounding term “town and gown.” In recent years, though, the connections of cities and universities have started to shift as higher education’s orientation towards global markets has left its imprint on Canada’s university system.

While universities have sought students in far-flung markets and have intensified their reach for research collaboration worldwide, they have also imposed austerity regimes and changing labour relations at home. Across Canada, universities are actively pursuing new avenues to commercialize academic knowledge, differentiate themselves amongst their competitors (locally and globally) and, importantly, maximize their social and economic impact as city-builders and city-makers. In this dynamic and challenging environment, we believe, based on a recently completed study at York University, that universities’ primary strength remains to deliver well-educated graduates and, secondarily, to foster relations with non-traditional partners through knowledge mobilization and joint research.

To accomplish either of these objectives, the changing landscapes of both university education and suburban development, as well as their relationships to each other, have to be better understood. The city-university link has been considered critical to the restructuring of higher education institutions. Yet at the same time as universities’ function and mission are dramatically evolving, so to is the metropolitan context in which many leading academic institutions are intrinsically embedded. In Canada, 80 percent of the population now lives in metropolitan areas, defined by suburbanization, diversity and immigration. These emerging social and geographic patterns have undeniable and immediate implications for universities as they attempt to adjust to new political and economic realities.

Universities have created a number of strategies to tap into Canada’s emergent urban society. Meric Gertler, the University of Toronto’s new president – or “mayor” as the Globe and Mail called him with reference to the size of the institution’s population and reach – speaks of the need to more fully leverage the university’s location in the globalized, cosmopolitan Toronto city-region. Ryerson University’s president Sheldon Levy has expressed his pride “to be part of the revitalization of Toronto’s downtown core.” McGill University’s new president, Suzanne Fortier, in her first speech to the Metropolitan Montreal Board of Trade, said her objective is that “McGill be part of the team” and a better partner for Montreal.

Unsurprisingly, the university’s love for the city is matched by municipalities that express their desire to be part of the higher education game. The core city of Toronto has long sunned itself in the glory of its downtown university. But the story is bigger now. The mayor of Toronto’s suburban neighbour Vaughan recently proposed to the president of York University Mamdouh Shoukri at a public event that his town was a potential new site for York’s expansion plans. Dr. Shoukri confirmed more recently that his university was indeed looking to create a suburban campus in York Region. Farther north, Jeff Lehman, mayor of Barrie, has starred in a promotional video calling on Laurentian University to locate a satellite campus in the “largest Canadian city without a university campus.”

Yet, the university is not a simple panacea for cities’ urban development ambitions. Universities can help shape both economic development and civic agendas through knowledge mobilization activities and satellite teaching campuses. However, while universities may be major players, they tend not to be the catalyst of local economic development and do not necessarily embrace leadership roles in their communities. This is especially true if the knowledge resources of the institution are not used in an effective way.

Indeed, universities often remain physically in, yet functionally separated from, their metropolitan context. They can be land and housing developers in their own right or be part, and even instigators, of urban and regional development strategies. This has happened, for example, in recent attempts to grow local clusters around the “ed & med” sectors in many places. But universities can also be actors pursuing altruistic agendas of urban improvement and a space for public participation in the urban process, often driven by faculty, staff and students rather than institutional leadership. At York University, the faculty association and other groups are attempting to mend the historically uneasy relationships with the university’s neighbouring community that has been one of the least privileged districts in the city. Being “engaged” can mean different things to different actors on both side of the city-university divide. Rarely can good relationships across this divide be forged if the higher education institution has no clearly defined mission statement. And even if good will and strategy are there, required outcomes in the community do not follow automatically.

The pressure on Canadian universities to foster and commercialize innovation has led to a geographically defined competition among institutions to ensure funding and enrolment nationally, even globally. Struggling to position themselves while the division of research and teaching resources is shifting nationwide, universities cater to an ever-more confusing array of demands from society and government to stay afloat. The choice by universities to narrowly focus on making research more economically relevant (guided by federal and provincial directives) oversells the immediate commercial capacity of the university and undersells their more far-reaching potential of high-impact innovations for rapidly evolving urban regions.

Yet, this is where the potential synergies of cities’ and universities’ interests can be most fruitfully developed. We see encouraging evidence of universities engaging suburban municipalities rather than concentrating their focus downtown. New R&D synergies are emerging in exurban belts. Immigrant organizations in “ethnoburbs” and community, environmental and labour groups are emerging as vital partners for universities, in addition to their traditional connections with established civic or business elites. There is vast potential for universities to generate lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with the inner suburban areas where concentrated immigrant populations and innovative businesses have come to be located, but such engagements need careful and adaptive nurturing. It is by taking seriously the opportunities of the dynamic region at their doorstep with its changing demographic and economic composition – reassessing notions of “town and gown” – that universities can respond best to the challenges of providing higher education in the globalizing city. .

Dr. Addie is Provost Fellow at STEaPP, University College London. Dr. Keil is a professor of environmental studies at York University. Their SSHRC-funded report on university-city relationships (with Kris Olds, University of Wisconsin) will be followed by a related paper in the journal Territory, Politics, Governance.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *