College Park wants to be more “college town.” It turns out the home of the University of Maryland isn’t very college-town-y: it’s part auto-based sprawl, part dismal inner-ring suburb, and nothing like Tuscon, Ann Arbor, Madison, or any other of the country’s great college towns.
The remarkable thing is that beyond simply bemoaning this reality, students and local leaders alike seem to be trying to make some changes. The county has adopted form-based zoning, which can help encourage pedestrian development. The newly elected student government president even sponsored a design charrette to generate ideas about how they’d like to see the city grow, and city leaders have been cautiously receptive to the ideas.
The latest idea about how to foster change in the city comes this week in a thoughtful op-ed in the University of Maryland student paper, the Diamonback. In it, student David Daddio applauds the recent activity and the emerging concensus that the community wants a vibrant, walkable, college town. In the end, what is Daddio’s suggestion about what is needed to bring about this kind of College Park?
The time is now for the university to share resources with the city and strengthen communications with the county, which wields zoning authority. The student population living in College Park rivals the city’s resident population yet, as of now, we are only passive observers in these issues. We receive information piecemeal from the occasional newspaper article and there is little opportunity for public input.
This is why I propose the city and the university combine resources and form a user-friendly website — an ongoing public participation venue where students and city residents can be educated, debate the merits of projects and voice opinions. I can only hope the incoming Student Government Association takes these issues seriously, abandons previous notions that student participation in city issues is futile and fosters a commitment to creating a vision of a better College Park.
Ah, he thinks they need a website to help connect the campus community with city and county officials, and although he doesn’t say it, I imagine the development community as well. Between this blog, the student neighborhood association I started, the city task force I served on, and the community website I founded, I had quite a bit of experience in this area in Ann Arbor, a quintessential college town.
Although the general idea is a good one, I don’t think it should be directly administered by the city or county. In general, I’ve found websites administered by municipalities for development purposes reflect the bureaucratic nature of their owners and do not have the sufficient journalistic verve to attract and engage a broad audience. (DC government’s Inclusivecity.org is a good example, I think) The city or university could provide financial or material support, but in order really succeed I think any website must be independent enough to provide a neutral platform for all views.
What might be an ideal model? From an organizational size I think such an endeavor would be best implemented through an independent organization which could include Maryland students, faculty, College Park community members, and perhaps even county leaders and developers. Although the site could receive support in the form of operating grants from the city or university it should retain the strict editorial independence and dedication to free discussion of any journalistic exercise. The University of Maryland’s own College of Journalism administers through their J-Lab (their website is down currently) division small grants for exactly this type of project: innovative applications to technology in local journalism.
Once we have the organizational underpinnings in place there is of course the all-important question of technology. As I see it there are only two viable options:
- A Blog: This site would be anchored by a blog covering the latest news with static pages containing a library of information. Discussion would take place mostly in commenting, and perhaps through listservs designed to drive traffic back to the site. The advantage of this site is that it would be the best way to build a broad audience and inform people, the downside is that it is difficult to use to hold deliberative conversations.
- A Forum: If administered well, forums can work to foster inclusive, high-level discussions, but can be difficult to use to engage the majority of community members. I was very impressed by a presentation I saw by the people at the organization e-democracy.org who have lots of experience building high quality civic discussion forums, and even have paid to design some custom software to do it.
Ideally the magic-bullet solution would be a seamless hybrid of both, although if one exists I’m not aware of it. I’ll be interested to see if anything develops from his idea, and if it does would certainly consider helping.
> David Daddio Op-ed, 5/8: “Rethinking College Park”
> 5/3: “City receptive to student designs”
> 4/10: “SGA holds event to plan ‘college town’”
> 3/31: “Students suggest theater, shopping for city at forum“