Symposium examines University's role in urban revitalization

What is a "knowledge park" and why should Penn and West Philadelphia care?

A symposium last week rounded up a roomful of University urban planner-types and city officials to explore those and other questions as to how Penn can more aggressively improve its surroundings and, on a broader scale, effect the revitalization of Philadelphia.

To demonstrate the success of knowledge parks (clusters of industry and research institutions) and the growing influence large medical and educational institutions -- "meds and eds" -- wield in urban development and survival, Penn's City and Regional Planning Department invited speaker George Bugliarello, chancellor of Polytechnic University, to tell of success his school has experienced in stimulating development in Brooklyn.

The "Metrotech example" Bugliarello offered showed how Polytechnic became the official developer of a 16-acre business and research center right off of Flatbush Avenue, stimulating 20,000 jobs, $1.4 billion in investment and a slight increase in student enrollment.

"It demonstrated that sometimes a university can really add to the community and provide a new instrument for regional economic development," Bugliarello said.

The key to the success came in the formation of "loose" coalitions among the state and local governments, the university, industry and the community, Bugliarello said. "They may all have different goals, which is okay, as long as they lead to a common action plan."

Gary Hack, dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, noted that in Philadelphia, six of the 10 largest non-governmental employers are universities or medical institutions, and that the "revival of Philadelphia depends as much on them as on what happens in the tourist economy or on Independence Mall."

The symposium last Tuesday represented the opportunity to strike "a real alliance between the town and the gown," said Anthony R. Tomazinis, chair of Penn's City and Regional Planning department. "Problems continue to bedevil -- or demolish practically -- the center cities in this country, and it is important for the university to muster whatever experience and knowledge it has to produce a better understanding of those problems and intervene as needed to reverse the tide and improve the prospects of urban America."

A sea change occurring in the relationship between universities and American society provides many sources for optimism, said Ira Harkavy, director of Penn's Center for Community Partnerships. "Institutions like Penn, Yale and others ... it's obvious it's in our immediate self-interest to improve our surrounding neighborhoods, for our own survival," Harkavy said.

Increasing pressures and opportunities to focus on such work also led to last week's symposium, Harkavy said, adding that coming up with ways to improve the nearby neighborhoods provides an excellent method for developing knowledge of the issues surrounding urban ills.

Originally published on February 26, 1998