Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Probing the Issues of Town/Gown Conflict 

04-24-2019 11:53

When word leaks out that a university is going to expand, waves of fear sometimes spread through adjacent neighborhoods. Uncertainty and rumors abound. These neighborhoods were often established to support the institution with housing and services. Now they are in jeopardy by virtue of the school's success. What interests are at stake? What can be done to ease tension in the university community? Can town and gown coexist?

Traditionally, schools made unilateral decisions about expansion. A need was identified, plans were drawn, and the process proceeded. For the most part, those days are over. Today, three groups need to participate in any discussion of university expansion: the institution, the municipality, and the residents. Universities and municipalities tend to work out agreements within an established political/legal system that is often concerned only with making sure that technical requirements are fulfilled. Meanwhile, the third party in the conflict, the neighborhood association or other citizen group, is not always included in the political process and feels powerless.

In this article we will first look at the town/gown controversy from different perspectives, principally those of the university and the community. We will then look at the process of coming to accord, an effort that must be constantly renewed.

In most cases, when the public discusses current university expansion, it focuses on the past, citing old data and recalling old battles. This is not to say that current issues are insignificant, only that the most profound problems date back to the 1960s and 1970s and the time of urban renewal. While that era is long gone, the memories are still fresh in the public's mind. People cite broken promises and recall the sometimes cavalier attitude and heavy-handed nature of university planning. Trust was shattered, and it has taken a long time for the wounds to heal. In situation after situation those early activities are cited as examples of how schools have destroyed neighborhoods.

While schools have legitimate reasons for undertaking expansion of their physical plants, the process of expansion itself tends to generate much of the ill will. For their part, desperate citizen organizations tend to exacerbate the situation by throwing up every conceivable roadblock. Municipalities often take a hands-off position, especially when the institution is a public, state-supported school that is exempt from local jurisdiction. As a result, schools become more and more isolated in their planning and expansion processes.

Institutions, municipalities, and residents must work hard to reach accord. Good relations do not just happen. They need to be nurtured by all parties with clear acknowledgement of common issues and with clear intentions to resolve these issues jointly.


While it may not ease our minds, we should be aware that the conflict between town and gown is not new. Almost from the day universities settled into communities, there has been conflict between academic institutions and their host communities.

In medieval Europe masters and students lived scattered throughout the town as tenants and lodgers in private houses. They put a strain on accommodations and services. Townspeople tried to capitalize upon the demand and boosted prices. Students, youngsters released from the restraints of home and filled with a lust for life, sometimes ran wild. There were clashes with townsfolk, drinking and gaming. While these problems may sound familiar, a major difference between medieval and modern town/gown conflicts is that the former took place pretty much between segments of the population. It was a people/people problem. The medieval university was not as much a physical entity as it was an intellectual one. Today, our universities and colleges are both intellectual and physical entities. Conflicts have expanded to include confrontation for the very turf held or sought by university, town, and residents. The problem today is a people/institution one. The university has in deed become an institution, an entity that seems to take on a life of its own quite separate from that of the "masters and scholars" who inhabit it.

American universities were respected institutions in our early history. Although schools were small, they were vital and welcomed elements of the communities. Serious problems began after World War II and the Korean War, when veterans returned to campus under special government incentive programs. Schools faced a population explosion that strained their facilities. Because schools could not easily accommodate the great numbers of older returning veterans, often married and with families, surrounding neighborhoods were transformed for student housing. Some homeowners moved away. Others, recognizing opportunity, converted single-family housing into student apartments. As a result, adjacent neighborhoods fell into decline.

During the 1960s the federal government inadvertently increased tension between university and community. Under the pretense of assisting in community development, the National Housing Act of 1959 was adopted to assist urban areas in clearing blighted sections for new housing. Amendments to the act, in 1961, allowed urban-renewal money to be used to assist educational institutions in expanding their physical plants. With the willing assistance and support of local planning and elected officials-and, of course, the federal government-schools embarked on ambitious campus development. While the intent of those programs was to improve the greater community, areas in which students were previously able to find inexpensive housing, now designated as blighted slums, were replaced with educational facilities. Emphasis was placed on physical improvement, even when it was delivered at the expense of social and cultural diversity and continuity.

It should not be surprising that the town/gown controversy surfaced in the turbulent 1960s, an age of protest in which all authority and institutional thinking was challenged. On campus, students protested not only against American involvement in Vietnam, but also against "in loco parentis" rules and regulations. Students got their way on many issues, including courses, programs, and housing. Local residents, finding students successful in protesting issues, soon began to get in on the action, even taking on the university itself.

Also during the 1960s, partly as a response to the impact of urban renewal, another grass-roots movement emerged in America-historic preservation, an alternative to demolition and new construction. Pioneer work was done in Providence, Rhode Island, where the Preservation Commission and the Providence Preservation Society teamed up to use federal urban-renewal money in a demonstration study of the area around Brown University called College Hill. What made this new preservation movement so attractive to many communities was that it began as a private-sector activity and was accomplished with little or no public investment. Properties remained on the tax rolls. Protection of preservation efforts was sought through the designation of neighborhoods as historic districts; property values stabilized, then increased, and neighborhoods experienced a renaissance.


Controversies between town and gown assume several forms. They relate to physical expansion, functional impacts (parking, traffic, and changing context), and social problems (noise and crime). No community containing an academic institution is immune to town/gown conflict-although in some cases the conflicts are minor. The dynamics of conflict are influenced by such factors as community size, institution size, whether the institution is private or public, whether it is in an urban or a nonurban community, the quality of campus leadership, and how much land is held by the institution. Generally, however, the degree of conflict is directly related to the size of the institution relative to the size of the town.

Any university action interpreted as an expansion beyond existing boundaries is threatening to neighbors. Residents do not like to see universities purchase property for student housing because neighborhood serenity is disrupted. Noise is probably the most frequent neighbor complaint. Such complaints are so common they hardly need be discussed here. The nature of student entertainment means a lot of noise. Resident property owners have a vested interest in the stability of the neighborhood and maintain a certain quality of life. Students upset that lifestyle. With exceptions, most students have never been responsible for real property. Because demand for housing is high, landlords do not feel obligated to apply rental income to maintenance or landscaping services; students do not demand those services, and neighborhood associations cannot mandate them. Therefore buildings and grounds are neglected.

While most resident-owner homes are single-family occupancy and generate a limited amount of traffic, single-family homes converted to student rentals generate a great deal of traffic. The physical impact is greater than most neighborhoods can comfortably accommodate.

Problems occur wherever students become residents, whether the property is university-owned or privately owned. While sharp criticism is leveled at the university for not controlling its students, people do not realize that the school usually has no jurisdiction when students live in nonuniversity housing. The school is often legally restricted from controlling students who live off-campus, and the question of control becomes a neighborhood and municipal problem instead of a university problem.

Several schools have worked with neighborhoods to address the issue of student responsibilities as residents in the neighborhoods. Some universities provide handbooks with guidelines to help students living off-campus become neighbors. They also have campus/community liaison offices and hot lines to respond to complaints. Some communities have attempted to limit the number of nonrelated students living in a housing unit. Such limits do not work as well as expected because they are difficult to monitor and subject to legal challenges.

Academic institutions are looked upon as hungry organisms that feed on surrounding neighborhoods to quell insatiable appetites. This vivid description, while sometimes close to reality, is not entirely apt. The university is really an association of individuals in different roles, serving as trustees, stewards, and educators. They are often the same people who live in the community and contribute to its growth and development. Therefore, an opportunity exists to nurture lines of communication between town and gown as neighbor.

Critics see universities as entities that seem to operate independently of the local community. Schools have been accused of being arrogant and without respect for community needs. Universities maintain, however, that they are indeed vital contributors to the community as evidenced by various educational, cultural, and service opportunities and partnerships. The crux of the problem is that the local community is often a secondary priority to the university. Conversely, local communities are often poorly focused and subject to diverse reactions on single issues. It is often difficult for respective entities to establish points of communication and, therefore, lasting dialogue on community issues.


Academic institutions of higher education range from local community colleges, which provide basic educational services to local residents, to large international research institutions. The latter generally began on a small scale and evolved into world-renowned institutions independent of their contexts. World-class institutions adopt missions far greater than their immediate communities are ready to support. Local communities do not understand the full implications of that status relative to the facilities required to maintain world-class stature.

From the institution's perspective expansion is not an unreasonable expectation, considering the school's mission and goals. Land is needed for new academic or support facilities. Unless the school is situated on a generous campus with area to expand internally, it will have to expand laterally. Seldom, however, is an established university campus in the enviable position of having vacant and undeveloped land beyond its boundary. More often the university is situated in an urban setting surrounded by established neighborhoods. Unfortunately, most schools approach expansion the way Europeans approached colonization: Nothing of significance existed before they arrived to develop the land.

One would expect all universities to have adopted some form of master plan for future development. Surprisingly, many schools have no plans to identify their boundaries, indicate the extent to which they anticipate growth, or even exhibit an impact area for planning purposes. It is a rare institution that commits itself to a "red line," establishing the area beyond which it will not actively seek property.

When an academic institution identifies a need for expansion, it initiates a program for land acquisition. The school does not need to have immediate plans for the development of the land. It anticipates a future need and works to acquire property while it is still affordable.

Most purchases are opportunistic. A property owner within what is generally defined as a "planning zone" or "planning area" by the university wishes to place his/her property on the market. Since the school's ultimate goal is to own all properties within the planning zone, it buys, assuming funding is available, any property that comes on the market.

Opportunistic acquisition results in blockbusting because acquired properties tend to be scattered throughout the planning zone. Buildings are torn down, left vacant, or used for offices or student housing. Residents see their neighborhood deteriorating. Not wishing to see property values decline to the point at which little is left, they decide to get out. In the panic more properties are placed on the market for university acquisition. The university sits on the land, an action termed "land banking." Since the institution probably does not have tax obligations on these parcels, it is able to let them sit.

All universities have a land and property division responsible for negotiating purchases. Some have found methods whereby they are able to stay relatively clean of the whole sordid affair. A foundation or development corporation founded expressly to support the university becomes the vehicle for acquisition. After purchase by this private entity, the land is turned over to the university for development. This is particularly effective when the institution is a public entity. As a private organization the foundation may be able to circumvent state laws that restrict state agencies in acquiring potentially historic property. But, since the private foundation may have to conform to municipal regulations if it develops the land, the unencumbered property is turned over to the institution for development. In other cases, the foundation may find it advantageous to construct the project and lease it to the institution.

A tool employed by public institutions is the right of eminent domain, the right of government entities to take private property as long as the taking is for a public purpose and just compensation is made. This action is something most schools claim to use very little because of its political cost. They would rather negotiate with willing sellers. Its use is, however, not entirely uncommon. Private institutions do not have this right, but have worked in conjunction with the municipality to further their ends-a precedent set in the urban-renewal era.

Schools generally direct their attention toward their most vulnerable adjacencies. Vulnerable areas include neighborhoods with poor, unorganized, and politically innocent residents. These may also be areas with a high percentage of absentee landlords who are more interested in capital gains than in neighborhood stability. Unless no other option exists, schools seldom direct efforts toward more affluent neighborhoods with influential and savvy residents or to areas with predominantly resident ownership.

Secrecy has been one of the most powerful tools employed by the university. Public institutions claim it is vital in order to protect the public's money: As soon as speculators gain knowledge of the school's plans, they will acquire properties that the university will eventually want. This drives up land prices. Also, early disclosure of plans allows neighborhood opposition to coalesce. This is indeed a great dilemma. If, on the one hand, the school opens its planning process, it runs the risk of opportunistic ventures and open dialogue, both of which cause delays. If, on the other hand, it does not disclose its plans, the school is accused of not dealing fairly.

Some schools have carried their secrecy into the actual planning phase. Planners on several campuses stated that outsiders should have no part in campus planning.

A mistake several schools make is to equate information sharing with communication. Campus officials claim that they communicate with affected neighborhoods at public meetings when they go public with development plans. Residents, however, argue that this is information after the fact; neither dialogue nor opportunity for constructive input was possible at critical stages.

Cooperation can yield positive results, especially when initiated by the university. One midwestern urban university opened its planning process for a new clinic to the community with a charrette attended by both university and neighborhood representatives with highly successful results. A previous unsuccessful venture had been squelched by angry residents. Elsewhere, a committee composed of university and city planning personnel and neighborhood and adjacent community center representatives met to resolve planning problems on the edge of campus. This team spent two years resolving the campus boundary problems-to the satisfaction of all involved.

Some universities have found ways to become good working partners with neighbors as well as with the municipalities. When one midwestern school needed to expand its facilities and build a new recreation center, it determined that most of the new construction could be contained within the campus itself; the recreation center, however, had to be built outside the main campus. The university owned most, but not all, of the property in the area. While the new building would certainly make an impact on the neighborhood, opposition came not from the adjacent neighborhood-the school had gone to the neighborhood association to present its needs before going public-but from advocates for housing for the homeless. The school worked to mitigate the impact of the project on the residents through various programs, including relocation-fund assistance and a proposal to the city for neighborhood planning.

The university further reduced opposition to expansion when it worked cooperatively with the community to find alternatives to demolition. Any house in the area of the proposed expansion was made available for one dollar to anyone who would relocate it. The school contributed an amount equivalent to the cost of demolition to those who accepted the offer. Additionally, the neighborhood association was given the right to salvage material from any house that was to be destroyed. Proceeds from the sale of salvaged materials were used to further neighborhood programs. Representatives from the neighborhood association now sit on the campus planning committee, and an official of the university is a member of the neighborhood association's board of directors. A channel for ongoing communication is open.

Sometimes sincere efforts by the institution backfire. One New England university reacted positively to complaints by citizens of an adjacent neighborhood that students were successfully competing for what was perceived to be low- and middle-cost housing. Since students were required to have written permission to live off-campus, the neighborhood was removed from the list of areas approved for student housing. As a result, individual landlords complained that the university was depriving them of a market and the opportunity for more rent.


Schools need proper facilities to meet their missions. While enrollment may stabilize or decline, programmatic changes will continue to generate a need for new facilities. The public must realize that, as in the business world, academic institutions must continue to develop. Universities are seen as generators of new knowledge, and specialized environments are required for them to meet their research needs. A school that does not keep pace with development of programs is not a strong institution. There is no standing still.

It is possible for the institution to look at neighborhood resources when it needs additional space. The traditional residential scale of the neighborhood can be maintained if the school is able to utilize existing buildings for university functions. Even if the residential function of the neighborhood has changed, the residential character and scale are retained. However, it is often difficult to convince schools of this approach since their ultimate goal seems to be that of ridding university land of nonacademic resources. They view those resources as obstacles rather than opportunities. Some schools have made efforts to utilize buildings for new uses, albeit on a temporary basis. Often, unless there are legal restraints on the demolition of the buildings, the school will eventually tear them down.

A tactic used by some universities is to purchase and rehabilitate or restore a key building within its expansion zone. The action is showcased as an example of the institution's appreciation of and concern for the architectural heritage of the community. Unfortunately, as school personnel often point out, this type of action was far more expensive than anticipated, and it cannot devote similar resources to other buildings. The institution counts on a few highly visible preservation efforts to release it from obligation to maintain additional resources.

There are, however, institutions that have made the retention of nonacademic resources a permanent part of their campus image. Perhaps the most notable example is the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, a small school landlocked by a town that is internationally recognized for its historic residential architecture. The school began as a private college and became a municipal, and finally, a state institution. It had a relatively small enrollment and a fine academic reputation. In the 1970s the decision was made to stay and develop the campus within the city rather than move. Properties were acquired, but rather than demolish the houses and build new institutional buildings, houses were converted to various uses including offices, dormitories, and classrooms. Few buildings were torn down, and approximately half a dozen were moved. Some streets were closed, and buildings were reoriented to the campus spaces. The end result is a campus community that is sensitively integrated into the larger community. Institutional identity with clearly defined boundaries was forsaken in order to achieve this integration. With increased enrollment, continued use of small residential properties has its limitations. The school has acquired larger properties for conversion: A motel is now a dormitory; a department store now houses offices and the campus bookstore; an empty hotel is being considered for additional student housing. The College of Charleston is a school that has found that its growth needs can be compatible with the retention of existing city fabric.

One small Pennsylvania college has a similar program, utilizing residential properties adjacent to the campus for student housing. The residential village is a perfect integration of student housing and traditional community-development patterns. An addition to one of the former houses to make a dormitory is a fine example of compatible design, and the incorporation of parking behind the street-fronted houses is a successful solution to the problem.

From the institutional point of view, reuse is beset by several problems. Campus personnel do not especially relish being relegated to "the annex" where they feel isolated from professional colleagues. Unless the occupant is a small, independent campus unit, loss of professional collegiality can be critical. Additionally, students are less likely to find their way to these outposts. Buildings and grounds personnel find maintenance more difficult for aging resources that experience more intensive use than they were designed for. Security forces find the buildings difficult to monitor and protect. Equipment and utility costs are generally higher per square foot for small, isolated buildings than for larger campus buildings. In many cases, critical mass is too small to guarantee the building's long-term retention.

Another major deterrent to the reuse of nonacademic resources is the increased specialization associated with many university functions. The sciences, especially, require spaces for activities that are often in serious conflict with older buildings. Many functions, including laboratories and art studios, are just not compatible with some historic resources. A comfortable fit between function and form is critical or the building can be destroyed in the effort. It is often said that once buildings have been used for student housing or art studios, they have been destroyed.

Because there are so many variables, it is impossible to determine the viability of reuse based solely on building function and size. Usually universities save buildings for reuse when they have functions to place within them. Functional issues that must be considered in planning for reuse include the size of the needed facility, its relationship to the rest of the campus, and its access and parking requirements. Other practical issues include the building's location, condition, rehabilitation costs, ability to meet building regulations, ADA requirements, and continued maintenance and security costs.

The alternative to utilizing the buildings is to leave them vacant and to board them up. Buildings treated this way are prey to vandals and transients. Since the school has no need for the resource, it is not overly concerned when such buildings are damaged by fire, except for the safety issue, liability, or expenses involved. Even if the buildings survive, lack of maintenance and service takes its toll. Eventually they become so deteriorated that the only option available is condemnation and site clearance. Common excuses from the university are that it cannot afford to protect the resources when those efforts are in direct competition with academic program funding and that it cannot afford the expense of rehabilitation after lengthy neglect.

Today's realities must be reflected in campus planning. Land acquisition is becoming increasingly difficult due to land costs, severely reduced budgets, and, of course, community opposition. Campuses have become so large that it is difficult for students and faculty to move around campus efficiently. Construction has become unbelievably expensive. As a result, schools need to explore planning options. Fortunately, there is a new generation of professional campus planners and architects who take a broader look at campus-planning issues. Campus-planning journals suggest that schools undertake strategic planning, which is far more comprehensive than the traditional organizational planning approach followed at most schools. Strategic planning is externally oriented and-because it spans traditional boundaries-addresses much broader community issues. Strategic planning also means that the university must capitalize on expert participation rather than in-house resources.


Community residents are another part of the equation. What can the local community do to do achieve its goals and still permit the university to fulfill its mission?

A common complaint among university officials is that even when the school follows an approved process and achieves accord, someone new enters the fray and stirs up a hornet's nest. It is difficult to work with community groups that speak without unity and cannot clearly define their objectives. Opponents are so focused on individual interests that they cannot-or will not-consider the broad community issues that also need to be addressed.

Additional problems occur when various neighborhoods have different agendas. Sometimes one neighborhood will reach accord with the institution while another will not. Each neighborhood looks out for its own interests, often at the expense of others. With such responses it is understandable that the institution tries to circumvent citizen groups.

Each community is composed of different interest groups that feel they have the right to affect university planning policies. Those expecting to have an impact need to establish their credentials: What are their interests, how do actions of the university affect the group, and how does the group affect the university? Time and time again it becomes clear that success is the result of organization. Neighborhood groups must elevate themselves above simply employing emotionally charged obstructive practices. The president of one successful association of homeowners states that commitment and organization are the two most important ingredients to success as evidenced by what it has been able to accomplish. Other important components include professional expertise, legal knowledge, financial backing, and political support. However, organization generally guarantees the difference between success and failure. Leaders must have the respect of the group and be able to speak effectively on its behalf. Splinter groups and minority interests must be considered but should not be allowed to thwart positive efforts. Meetings must be conducted in an efficient and controlled manner, and minutes must be kept to ensure that all parties adhere to decisions and agreements. Responsibilities must be assigned, and individuals should be accountable for their assignments. Documenting the entire process should reduce the likelihood that new torchbearers, who come to the process late, can subvert actions after the fact.

The group must be united. While this does not preclude diversity of opinion, it means that the group should speak with one voice when it carries its agenda to the university. Potential internal conflicts of interest must be resolved before the group can effectively communicate with the institution. Internal communication precedes external communication.

In order to communicate effectively groups must know with whom they are dealing. Networks (social, business, and political) need to be established if direct lines do not already exist. Residents of a neighborhood in a midwestern college town organized themselves to challenge the university. It was not, however, a hostile confrontation. Knowing who made decisions for the school, residents used their contacts to open channels of communication. With levelheadedness, they worked with the school in joint planning programs. The result is that the neighborhood and university are working together to improve the community. The situation further improved when the former mayor of the community, also a resident and property owner of the neighborhood, became the assistant director of campus facilities planning.

In one southwestern community, university planners wished to undertake a student-housing project on the edge of campus; residents became alarmed. While the development was entirely contained on university property, access was through the neighborhood. Campus planners had not considered this project's impact beyond the university property line. The neighborhood organization proposed an alternative with a loop system denying access from the university site to neighborhood streets. Buffering was also to be provided. The city became involved because of the impact on city streets. At first the city was not cooperative, but said it would support a unified proposal that resolved differences of opinion among neighbors. Neighbors persisted, became politically active, and eventually brought an accord that all parties accepted. The neighborhood was strengthened, the university got its housing, and the city benefited as a cooperating agency with little public investment.

Neighborhood activists would do well to learn how to use the media. Newspapers, radio, and television can be strong allies in any conflict with the institution. Schools strive to avoid bad publicity, especially when they must rely upon public support and funding. Continued efforts must be made to get the media to cover community efforts.

It is also vital to work with the municipality. Whether the city has legal jurisdiction over the institution or not, it is important for neighborhood activists to communicate regularly with the city. Universities impact neighborhoods in many ways-parking, traffic, service access, off-campus housing, commercial centers-that can be regulated by the city.

Several communities have implemented neighborhood residential parking-permit programs, prohibiting nonresident parking during school hours. One southwestern community extended the program to include such special events as sports activities and campus festivals.

Institutional zoning is a method some communities have adopted to control schools while at the same time releasing institutions from certain hurdles in the approval process. Within an institutional zone, schools are free to develop their land without approvals as long as such requirements as height, base-zone classification, and function are adhered to. Land development outside the zone must still follow standard procedures. Residents find a degree of relief, knowing that the school is encouraged to work within its zone rather than expand its limits. Of course, this is effective for private institutions that must operate within local jurisdiction.

No one enjoys continual criticism. Universities cease cooperating when groups only oppose their actions. Citizens will gain more cooperation from schools by recognizing positive efforts and by praising the school and its leaders when they deserve to be praised. Community recognition of those efforts does much to foster positive working relations. Publicity and/or awards should honor the school, even for those projects that have resulted from intense battles. Appreciation for the extra efforts made by the institution to make a project successful should be expressed.

Citizen groups have been able to effectively counter university actions with their own. One tool communities have employed to delay demolition of neighborhoods is historic designation-both National Register listing and local designation. To be truly effective, however, historic designation should be a part of a comprehensive community-planning process that occurs before the university announces its plans. Often, university plans are created because no one has communicated that the resources in question are valuable. It is not uncommon for claims that areas are historic to be made only when they are threatened. Historic preservation should be a planning tool, not a last-ditch effort to stop projects.

Increasingly, individual states are passing legislation that protects national- and state-registered properties from actions of the state government and, in some cases, sets restrictions against private action. For example, in Arizona all state agencies, including tile board of regents must consult the State Historic Preservation Office on any project that affects a building more than fifty years old. This includes residential structures the university acquires and wishes to demolish. In Kansas, all projects within 500 feet of a historic district or historic structure must be reviewed for their impact on the resource. In Texas, a monetary fine equal to the amount of the building restoration is imposed for the unauthorized demolition of a historic building.

Neighborhood groups sometimes face opposition to historic designation within their own ranks. Not all residents support historic districts, and the university will often openly oppose designation, especially when it has plans for the area. Campus personnel (usually with no knowledge of historic architecture) frequently counter that the resources in question are not historic. In one case a campus official expressed the opinion that designation was a simple and effective tool in controlling the university in its expansion plans. One neighborhood activist stated that National Register listing gives her neighborhood a great deal of clout because of the negative publicity that could be gained if the university destroys designated historic buildings.

When a neighborhood is not organized, when it has not pursued neighborhood planning or developed constructive strategies, it resorts to petty delaying tactics. Individuals, or even the organization, panic and reach into their bottomless bag of objections to throw before the approaching university. Objections to projects are emotionally charged and based upon any number of items, including traffic, noise, the blocking of views and of sun, incompatible functions, hazardous materials and procedures, height, loss of historic resources, loss of open land, loss of traditional land-use patterns, increased density, environmental concerns, and incompatibility of design. While some of the arguments are rather feeble, they effectively delay and may perhaps undermine the entire project.

There has been a tendency in our communities to blame universities for neighborhood decline, but sometimes the neighborhood has deteriorated for reasons only indirectly related to the university. For example, fraternities and sororities are private property holdings; so, too, are religious or social-service organizations. Private research centers locate in proximity to the university to capitalize upon its resources, and commercial enterprises move there to service a ready market.

Zoning to greater intensity of use, increase in the number of student rentals, changes in commercial character from community service to student orientation all contribute to changes in a neighborhood and may precipitate a decline in its stability. These problems need to be addressed in the political arena of city government. "Controlling" the institution alone may not save the neighborhood. Citizen groups must realize that a comprehensive neighborhood plan is vital to be addressing the multitude of problems that may be facing them.


University administrators and planners must realize that their plans will meet with opposition from some interest groups. There are few exceptions. Each conflict brings forth a new contingent of opponents. New groups proceed through a process that must be rediscovered. Other than being cited as evidence of ongoing problems with the university, previous compromises and resolutions are of little interest to the new combatants. Energized by the immediate situation they are ready to take on the university in yet another battle.

Neighborhood activists must realize that they, too, enter a different battlefield every time they confront the university on a proposed expansion. Those individuals with which a cooperative working relationship was established may no longer be in decision-making positions. It may be necessary to start over. It is therefore important to constantly nurture working relationships.

The objective of community/campus dialogue is not to stop a university from maintaining its leadership position in the academic community. It is to find solutions in which all parties feel they received due consideration. It means that both sides must approach the bargaining table prepared to listen and respond.

While a community group should not give up its fight, it must recognize the fact that to establish positive working relationships with the school it must be willing to negotiate a compromise. Not all battles can be won outright. Each outright win makes it more difficult to achieve future accord because the opponent does not wish to lose again. Both sides need to be realistic in their expectations. While this does not mean capitulation on major issues, it does suggest that recognition of the other's position is a must. Honesty would also make for better relations. For example, if the university is up front about just wanting the real estate and is willing to discuss options on what to do with the resources occupying the land, citizen groups can become part of the solution. Getting everyone to buy into the process is important. Laying the cards on the table allows everyone equal access to the information in order to resolve the problem.

The facilities personnel for our campuses must engage in strategic planning. Before they can project campus expansion, they need to participate in community surveys to determine what resources are out there. If the university is surrounded by eligible historic properties, it should realize that the road is not going to be easy. If this is the case, it may be more advantageous to begin exploring alternatives immediately rather than to waste time and money on the inevitable battles that will develop latter.

Are there ways in which universities and neighborhoods can find a peaceful coexistence? While there are still few examples, it can be done. It takes a great effort and respect on both sides to maintain harmony. It also demands an understanding of the needs and desires of the opposite party. Above all, it takes communication and dialogue and a desire for neighborly cooperation.


Publication date: November/December 1992


Author(s):Robert C. Giebner

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