It has been over twenty years since my student days at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Yet I have fond memories of this bustling campus community–one currently supporting a student population of 58,000 along with a faculty and staff contingent numbering around 27,000.

As an undergraduate Sociology major I found myself captivated by the urban vibe that resonated in the area at that time, particularly along High Street, the main thoroughfare bordering campus proper. In many ways High Street over the years came to epitomize what the sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as “anomie” or a state of normlessness, which in my mind symbolized the area’s struggle for identity amid the disparate interests of area residents, students, homeless individuals, and petty criminals. My frequent strolls along this street, often late at night after “tying one on” at one of the local bars, elicits memories of drunken brawls between students and bystanders against the backdrop of urine smells pulsating the area. Many of the buildings were run down and decrepit, strangely symbolizing the rapid deterioration of the street infrastructure and community ethos.

Visit this area today and you will quickly realize that a major renaissance has taken place, adding new spark and vigor to arguably the nation’s largest university community. Known as the “South Campus Gateway” project, this re-gentrification effort which opened to great fanfare in 2005, boasts one of the most preeminent models of urban vibrancy anywhere. Featuring an eclectic blend of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail offices, and housing in a walkable setting, the university community now enjoys “new urbanist” style amenities that are a boon to the area economy.

Indicative of efforts to ensure effective collaboration and partnership between the area community and campus, the university bookstore and the independent Long’s Bookstore, which for many years vied for student business are now part of one flagship Barnes and Noble Booksellers, prominently located in the heart of this new district. Adding to the diverse economic mix of the area is a grocery store specializing in natural and organic foods, a cinema, as well as several new restaurants, including a highly popular eatery owned by former OSU football star and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

The catalyst of this revitalization was $150 million in seed money from public and private investments. The campus district is also on the edge of a distressed neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty– a fact which allows it to benefit from a federal designation known as the Columbus Empowerment Zone.

With campus enrollments continuing their steady climb nationwide, many schools are likely to consider similar models for boosting the quality of life of their university communities. One such effort, albeit with a slightly different slant, appears to be occurring in the region where I live. Alexander Gonzalez, President of Sacramento State University and an advocate of partnerships between universities and the cities where they reside, has proposed initiatives addressing issues such as housing and transportation, two of a handful of critical factors for attracting and retaining top students and faculty. Plans are currently underway for a university village on 25 acres of land near campus to house faculty and staff struggling to afford Sacramento’s pricey real estate market. There are also efforts afoot to develop a transportation system linking campus to the light rail network of Sacramento County.

Most notably of late, the university and the City of Sacramento recently signed a partnership agreeing to collaborate on regional quality of life issues such as smart growth and economic and workforce development. This new accord rings consistent with Gonzalez’s vision of a truly “metropolitan university”, a trend that is likely to pick up momentum nationally as urban areas and university campuses explore new ways of coexisting as one.

Advertisements