Reconceptualizing the college town: Urban universities and local retail development

Leroy David Nunery, University of Pennsylvania


The traditional American “college town” is often depicted as an idyllic place where the academic community, residents, and local businesses co-exist. The institution's viability can affect the survival of nearby retail establishments and correspondingly, the retailers add context to the collegiate environment, like sports stadiums and fraternity houses. For urban universities, the “college town” concept differs from the traditional definition because of the complexity and diversity of the surroundings, particularly if the urban areas have deteriorated. In those cases, neighborhood stability and the institution's well-being are contemporaneously threatened, demonstrating the interdependency of the university and its neighborhoods and the needs for substantial institutional engagement. The linkage of a robust local economy and the urban university experience are proposed as being in the best interests of the institution and the community at large. In this thesis, I compare how the Universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago have developed strategies for revitalizing their campuses and neighborhoods. They represent how American higher educational institutions now relate differently and more positively to their cosmopolitan neighborhoods, reversing the blemishes of urban renewal and eminent domain programs of the mid-twentieth century. Through my personal history and connections with both institutions, I gained access to key decision-makers and information about the complex histories and revitalization programs. I found that both institutions have used retail development as a critical element in re-conceptualizing their “college towns”. Institutional self-interest, the motivations of primary actors (such as political and community leaders), race and class, and access to information, are common themes in the way universities have undertaken the task of redevelopment. Ultimately, “good” retail environments can affirmatively change the perception of the institution in the public's eyes and concurrent with programs for housing, education and safety can become differentiating characteristics for the institution within its competitive set. This dissertation is formulated as the nexus of economic development, university-community relations, and the emerging field of inner city retail development. It should have high appeal to business administrators, trustees, and others with responsibilities for economic development at their respective institutions.

Subject Area

Higher education|Business costs|Urban planning|Area planning & development

Recommended Citation

Nunery, Leroy David, "Reconceptualizing the college town: Urban universities and local retail development" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3084873.