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Cascade: No. 68, Spring/Summer 2008

Urban Anchors Fuel Economic Growth and Civic Progress

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann addressed the 2008 reinventing older communities conference on the evolving role that urban anchors, including large teaching and research universities, are playing in driving economic growth and civic progress in their communities.

She focused on three specific pathways for reinventing older communities: producing innovative scholarships that can be translated into effective policy; putting educational values into practice; and leveraging knowledge and other resources to foster economic development. “To realize our full potential,” Gutmann said, “Penn depends on the creative mingling of scholars, students, and ideas across all disciplines, backgrounds, and perspectives. For example, interdisciplinary research at Penn has helped policymakers address disparities in health, education, and economic mobility that have afflicted the urban underclass.”

Gutmann then described steps Penn has taken toward improving the life prospects of less advantaged citizens, beginning with measures to put a Penn education within reach of talented, aspiring students who otherwise could not afford to attend college. Penn now waives tuition for families making less than $90,000 and pays the full freight for families making $40,000 or less.

“In keeping with Bruce Katz’s recognition of the urgent need to strengthen the links between K-12 and higher education, Penn also has helped to improve the educational prospects of local school children in Philadelphia,” Gutmann said. “Our partnership with the Penn Alexander School has produced the highest performing racially diverse neighborhood K-8 public school in the city – and one of the best schools of its kind in the nation. Eighty-five percent of Penn Alexander eighth-grade graduates go on to selective magnet schools in Philadelphia that send high proportions of graduates to college.”

Gutmann then summarized some of the ways that Penn delivers a variety of innovative health services to our community, including:

  • Clinical and preventive health care to Sayre High School students, their families, and other members of the West Philadelphia community at the school;
  • Comprehensive dental treatment to West Philadelphia children, provided in a fully equipped mobile van known as PennSmiles.
  • Integrated nursing, medical, and rehab care that allows elderly residents to continue living independently in their homes and saves the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 15 percent to 20 percent in Medicaid reimbursement costs.

Amy Gutmann, President, University of PennsylvaniaAmy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania

Gutmann devoted the rest of her talk to Penn’s economic impact on the city and region. She began by noting the sea change that universities have undergone since the 1950s. “When universities needed to grow back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she said, “they seldom took social or environmental consequences into account. Basically, they saw, they planned, and they flattened any obstacles in their path. That was the old-school way of campus planning. “Penn is new-school,” she continued. “We are an anchor that employs more than 24,000 people and generates almost $7 billion for the Philadelphia economy through our purchases, capital investments, and research. We realize we can help build a stronger city and region best by partnering with the private and public sectors.”

Gutmann then described the university’s campus development plan to reinvent and transform a 24-acre property purchased from the U.S. Postal Service – “a dead and ugly parcel of land” – into beautiful Penn Park and a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood that forges seamless connections with Philadelphia and fuels progress throughout the region. Penn, Gutmann said, is boosting its housing stock for all students, adding recreational green space, and building state-of-the-art facilities for medicine, neuroscience, and nanotechnology.

Penn, according to Gutmann, ultimately wants to help reinvent Philadelphia by creating a new, mixed-use neighborhood “that extends William Penn’s original urban grid across the Schuylkill River, connects Penn and West Philadelphia to Center City, and transforms the riverfront itself into a source of civic pleasure and pride.”

Gutmann added: “To pull this off, however, we have to remove what urban visionary Jane Jacobs called ‘the curse of the border vacuums,’ which creates dead zones for social interaction and commerce. Examples of borders include railroad tracks, expressways, rivers, surface parking lots, ugly old buildings, and uncultivated parcels of land.” Gutmann proceeded to show slides that contrasted several border vacuums as they appear today with transformations that will “create a mixed-use neighborhood with a steady flow of foot traffic and energy.”

Gutmann said: “Today’s warehouses become tomorrow’s laboratories, radio stations, restaurants, cafes, bars, bike shops, hair salons, performing arts venues, and apartments. Parking lots become playing fields and parks, increasing green space on our campus by 20 percent.” For example, the moribund site of the Philadelphia Civic Center across the street from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital will be the site of an $833 million state-of-the-art medical care and research complex, beginning with the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, which will begin offering advanced cancer and cardiac care later this year.

The University of Pennsylvania is transforming a 24-acre property purchased from the U.S. Postal Service into Penn Park and a mixed-use neighborhood. A present-day view of the site is contrasted with a rendering of the completed project.The University of Pennsylvania is transforming a 24-acre property purchased from the U.S. Postal Service into Penn Park and a mixed-use neighborhood. A present-day view of the site is contrasted with a rendering of the completed project.

Gutmann stressed that all capital projects will meet the highest standards of energy conservation and environmental design. Penn also will heavily reuse stone and paving materials, choose native plants for landscaping, and provide for effective storm-water management.

Gutmann then discussed the jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that Penn’s expansion will create for local residents. Penn already purchases tens of millions of dollars worth of products and services each year from local businesses. And it has awarded up to a quarter of all construction contracts to minorityand women-owned businesses while making sure that at least a quarter of all construction jobs go to minority and women workers.

Gutmann, a political philosopher, concluded her talk with a reflection on ties that bind urban universities to their home cities. “Town-gown relationships, like politics, are ultimately local,” she said. “They are shaped by specific histories, circumstances, and constraints. We can agree that large urban universities have good reasons to partner with their neighbors to boost educational capacity and improve the long-term health and prosperity of their neighbors.

“At our best, urban universities are more than large employers and major economic players. We are good citizens and neighbors, bound by our mission to pursue integrated knowledge and understanding for the sake of serving society, beginning with our own neighboring communities.

“A university such as Penn connects more than our scholarship to policy, more than theory to practice, and more than our campus to our city. Ultimately, we connect people to one another in the rewarding work of reinventing our communities. Through our connections, we will replace border vacuums with lively neighborhoods. Through our connections, we will make our urban communities highly desirable places to study, live, work, and play. And through our connections, we will bring good, new life to this most glorious of human inventions – the city.”

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