Catalyzing a New Era for Chicago’s Higher-Ed Community
Meghan Webster in Chicago, Dialogues with Gensler, Education and Culture

Image © Gensler

America’s Urban Campus emerged as a seminal idea at a Dialogues panel discussion out of Gensler’s Chicago office last June. The term has since gained momentum among the city’s government leaders and its higher-ed institutions to re-envision Chicago as the next-generation college town. Coined by panelist Mark Kelly, Vice President of Student Affairs at Columbia College Chicago, the term characterizes Chicago’s institutional network as a hotbed of intellectual and inventive capital with the potential to drive the city economically, culturally, and urbanistically. With 65,000 students in the downtown Loop alone and 210,000 students throughout the city, Chicago is among the largest college towns in the United States, and the city is poised to become the leading destination for the collegiate experience and a thriving center of ideas, innovation, and talent.

At a broader level, America’s Urban Campus exemplifies the idea of a Knowledge City –- a term that describes the inevitable partnership that cities and their industries and institutions must form in order to survive. Higher-education cannot proceed with business as usual, and cities are at a similar inflection point. Chicago Forum48: Knowledge Cities, a workshop held in conjunction with the ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago gathered thought leaders from government, higher education, business, and real estate across the U.S. and beyond, to get at the crux of what drives a Knowledge City today. Gensler’s Education and Culture Practice Area Leader, David Broz was among those invited to contribute to the discussion.

Outsourcing the discussion to experts from around the globe brought a transformative approach –- both strategic and tactical –- to this developing idea. Cliff Allan, the Vice Chancellor of Birmingham City University, purports that cities must move from being drivers of the economic revolution to drivers of the invention revolution, and in order to do so must be powered by knowledge-generators –- their higher-education partners. Broz adds that ‘the conversation of innovation needs to start at the school level’ and that ‘institutions need to serve as portals and connectors’ for the city and industry. Forum48 panelists and participants identified several key strategies for a successful partnership, all of which Chicago has implemented at various stages:

Chicago possesses all of the elements of a great city, so where do we go from here?

Thus far, the conversation has largely been policy-driven, but what is the role of design in realizing these initiatives? What does the urban fabric of the city look like as a site for collaboration between its institutions? What makes the design of business incubators like 1871 so successful, and how do we design the next entrepreneurial educational environment that is equally formative? What impact will the partnerships that codify Knowledge Cities in general and America’s Urban Campus in particular have on the built environment? We’re interested in your thoughts: how can the city and its institutions and businesses come together to leverage Chicago as a brand?

Meghan is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at
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