Becoming Better Neighbors: Building Relationships between the University and Communities of Color

In college towns, such as Tallahassee, there are longstanding critiques of the separation of “town and gown.” Town and gown refers to the two distinct communities that make up college towns: the community cultivated by and through the university (gown), and the residents of the city itself (town). Most students and faculty come from elsewhere, and generally build closer connections to the community on campus than the historic Black communities surrounding the university. Students can cycle through town, developing stronger ties to their alma mater than to the city itself. One solution to mitigate this separation requires a deliberate and ongoing commitment to connect faculty research to the local community. Given the proximity of Florida State University to two of Florida’s oldest African American neighborhoods, Frenchtown and Griffin Heights, both immediately north of campus, there is great opportunity for applied learning and research that builds bridges between the university and these historic communities.

Over the past few years as Florida State faculty have been exploring both the potential and challenges involved in using community-engaged planning classes to cultivate stronger connections with Tallahassee’s historically Black neighborhoods. The prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement accentuates longstanding demands from the African American community for institutions to embrace social responsibility and combat enduring racial inequalities. Embracing this call, we seek to develop partnerships that utilize the intellectual resources of the university to empower historically marginalized community members.

Our recently published paper, “Gown Goes to Town” traces how FSU Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) classes could be used to engage and empower the historic African Americans communities adjacent to campus. Specifically, we discuss how courses in Neighborhood Planning, Community Involvement and Public Participation, and Urban Design, led by Assistant Professors Drs. April Jackson and Tisha Holmes, supported the City of Tallahassee Neighborhood First planning process in the Griffin Heights neighborhood. Neighborhood First is a multi-step planning process designed to assist neighborhoods to develop an action plan that addresses community priorities. The program aims to identify, assist, and cultivate opportunities for regrowth in some of Tallahassee’s oldest and most cherished neighborhoods. The Neighborhood First planning process engages the residents of targeted neighborhoods, but also involves partners from across Tallahassee in developing the plans.

Working with the Griffin Heights community provided an opportunity for DURP students to engage in applied learning with social impact. In addition to providing students with a chance to enhance their technical skills, the partnership exposed them to the distinct planning issues of an underprivileged community and the importance of effective communication. Conversely, the partnership helped amplify the voice of Griffin Heights residents as they engage in a neighborhood revitalization planning process.

As a community, Griffin Heights faces unique challenges related to neighborhood revitalization. Although student rental developments sit on the periphery of Griffin Heights, the historic core of the community—the 311 households between Alabama and Preston streets, and Basin and Woodward streets—remains overwhelmingly Black. Unlike many adjacent neighborhoods, where most residents are renters, the core of Griffin Heights has a relatively even distribution of owner-occupied (146) and rental (165) units. The core of the community is an older working-class neighborhood, with a median house value ($115,789) significantly lower than that of the city ($185,100), and a median age (48.4 years) almost double that of the city (27.2 years). Aging residents of Griffin Heights fear the potential loss of their historic community as student-centered development continues to expand in areas around FSU. 

To implement the Neighborhood First planning process in Griffin Heights, the City of Tallahassee Division of Neighborhood Affairs worked in collaboration with FSU DURP students and faculty, alongside the Griffin Heights Neighborhood Association. Three classes—Neighborhood Planning, Community Involvement and Public Participation, and Urban Design—provided planning students with a unique community-engaged learning opportunity. The courses were designed to interlink, collectively oriented to the goals of building university–community partnerships, supporting the Griffin Heights community, and providing students with service-learning opportunities. Students collected neighborhoods oral histories, conducted asset mapping, distributed community surveys, facilitated community meetings, and developed planning design solutions. All together, these three courses supported the City of Tallahassee’s efforts to engage the community and develop a Neighborhood First Plan for Griffin Heights.

Our analysis in “Gown Goes to Town” also highlights a number of challenges that need to be overcome to effectively empower historic African American communities in university partnerships. First, with limited funding for university–community partnerships, it can be difficult to reconcile project aspirations and realizable outcomes, incentivize participation, and sustain engagement. While the Neighborhood First planning process was envisioned to provide a collaborative planning platform, the demands on community capacity become problematic when there is no funding to follow-through to implementation. Without sufficient public funding to support extended planning processes and implementation, there are substantial risks that neighborhood plans are simply shelved and the course of development is dictated by outsiders to the neighborhood with the money to implement their own vision.

Second, it is difficult to negotiate community engagement processes within the competing institutional requirements of the university and the city. Griffin Heights residents sought timely interventions to ensure that established community members had a voice in shaping the future of their neighborhood. However, the unpredictable nature of community engaged work presented challenges on the compressed timeline of a university semester. While we anticipated these difficulties, we did not anticipate how these time constraints would be further complicated in combination with city agencies own predetermined timelines. Pausing and redirecting activities throughout the process impacted time-constrained coursework, where sometimes students, in order to meet course learning objectives, had to move forward rather than continue an iterative process of engagement.

Third, while the partnership sought to leverage university resources to benefit the community, there remain substantial concerns about how the burdens and benefits of university-community partnerships are distributed. Students benefited from an applied learning opportunity that enabled them to put the concepts in course material into practice; however, the benefits for the community were less clear. The research capacity of three classes enabled more extensive engagement of the community in city planning processes. Yet, the development pressures engendered by the proximity to the university continued to pressure the community without resolution or implementation of community-directed development plans. There remains substantial risk that new student housing developments will replace lower-income housing and increase area rents, displacing the historic Black community. 

Based on this experience, we want to emphasize the need to address inequalities within planning processes and partnerships to ensure that shared benefits for both the community and university is realized. This requires the dedication of substantial funding resources by both the city and the university to ensure an equitable process of community involvement. Tailoring courses to deliver content in the classroom and in the field requires substantial effort by the instructor. There needs to be department, college, or university funding to support and sustain future iterations of these community-engaged courses. Moreover, institutional incentives to enhance community-engaged courses would create greater potential to align different courses and faculty expertise, building more expansive and enduring university-community partnerships to effectively leverage university resources to support the neighborhoods surrounding FSU. 

An effective community-engaged planning process must not only promote equity and inclusion in the planning process, but also lead to equitable and just outcomes for the community. University and city officials have adopted the language of community engagement and social responsibility. However, beyond rhetoric, social justice requires a commitment to make change a reality. As teachers, we emphasize to students the necessity to engage in critical thinking and practice as they interact with the neighborhood, ensuring they “do no harm” and engage communities in culturally competent, responsive, and professional ways.  But as university researchers and city planners, we also must ensure that our engagements with the community “do no harm” and effectively empower community voice. We must develop planning processes that are sufficiently flexible and adaptive to respond effectively to neighborhood context and capacity. Creating reiterative feedback loops throughout the engagement process can guide the process towards the timely completion of plans to address community needs and desires.

Our experience highlights that planning processes need to acknowledge the distinct spatial visions of Black communities. We need to question dominant conceptualizations of how neighborhood revitalization happens and prioritize protecting the heritage of historic Black communities. Community revitalization should not be a synonym for community displacement. There must be a commitment to follow through and implement plans to address the issues identified by the community. Community engagement needs to effectively facilitate community empowerment. If our interventions are burdening rather than benefiting the community, we risk disenfranchising African American community members from city planning again and retrenching the division between town and gown.

Our paper, “Gown goes to Town: Negotiating mutually beneficial relationships between college students, city planners, and a historically marginalized African-American neighborhood” can be found in a Special Issue of Societies on enhancing the role of government, non-profits, universities, and resident associations as valuable community resources.

Dr. McCreary  is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. McCreary’s research here. You can connect with Dr. McCreary on LinkedIn.

Dr. Jackson is an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Jackson’s research here. You can connect with Dr. Jackson on LinkedIn.

Dr. Holmes is an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Holmes’s research here. You can connect with Dr. Holmes on LinkedIn.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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