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Good neighbors
by J.D Wilson

The University of Memphis' vision to be recognized as one of the emerging metropolitan research universities in the United States is being realized partly through the University District Initiative.

The initiative partners the U of M with community-based groups along with public and private organizations to improve the economic and social development in the University District through interdisciplinary engaged scholarship.

"Instead of us simply thinking about this as a university, faculty and students, we wanted to engage the community," says Dr. Stan Hyland, head of the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the U of M. "That to me is what we call engaged scholarship. That is the main unifying vision of engaged scholarship Ñ working collaboratively with all the stakeholders."

The University has projects spread across Memphis. Hyland was involved in a revitalization project in north Memphis that also studied gentrification issues. Dr. Phyllis Betts, director of the Center for Community-based Neighborhood Action, worked in Hickory Hill on problem properties. Gene Pearson, director of the Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning, has headed a revitalization effort of the Davy Crockett Park and surrounding residential area in Frayser.

Artist's Rendering  

An artist's rendering of proposed changes to the Highland Strip area. A U of M initiative as well as community initiatives look to modernize the strip. (Image courtesy of Looney Ricks Kiss Inc.)

These are only a handful of projects the University has been involved in, but not until now has the U of M pooled all of the schools together to work collaboratively in a specific area. The surrounding neighborhoods that make up the University District include the Normal Station Historic Neighborhood, the East Buntyn Historic Neighborhood, the Joffre Area Civic Neighborhood, the University Neighborhood Coalition and the Red Acres Neighborhood.

The genesis of the initiative came from the U of M Provost. Dr. Ralph Faudree's office lists seven focus areas to help enhance the University's status in serving Tennessee; among those areas are community initiatives. Last June, Hyland was asked to direct the project.

"I sat down with David Cox (executive assistant to the President for Partnerships and Administration) and some of the other key faculty, and we said why don't we focus on the University District," says Hyland. "We have all of these projects that the University is doing, all of these partnerships. Why don't we try to pull them together just for a moment in time to see in fact how they could converge, particularly since the University of Memphis was going through its Master Plan."

To get the initiative off the ground, Hyland says that the University needed to collect as much data on the University District as it could. He was surprised at the amount of research that had been done.

"We began to pull together data and studies just to come up with a common reality," says Hyland. "We were amazed at the number of studies that were discovered. What we were also amazed at is that none of the studies connected the dots."

Hyland then brought in graduate assistant Andrew Trippel, a graduate assistant in City and Regional Planning, as the point person to organize this information. Over the next two months, the group arranged the studies and created a Web site (http://cas.memphis.edu/udi) to archive this data.

Hyland also used the services of the City and Regional Planning Department to create basic planning maps to help the initiative analyze the needs and trends around the University.

"As we were doing this, we were also looking at how we could layer the data," says Hyland. "If you will, how could we take crime data and layer it with the property assessor's data with the land use data, so we got the planning department and Gene Pearson to begin to figure that out."

As the initiative discussion continued, the U of M felt it was necessary to bring the University District neighborhood and merchant groups to the table. To help bridge the community and the academic worlds, the University brought in Ann Coulter as the Henry Turley Visiting Fellow.

By the end of the summer in 2006, the Web site had been created and the district boundaries had been set. The initiative then looked to get more faculty involved and include courses directly related to community concerns. Twelve courses were developed for the University District Initiative for the 2007 spring semester. The course topics varied from architecture and city planning to nursing and health administration, and Hyland says that the initiative plans to expand the course selection in the future.

"This is reality, and for many students, if you're not going to continue in a career in academia this is in part why you are here," says Trippel. "You learn new skills about how to work with each other. You learn about power in relationships. You learn how to build partnerships, and those are all skills you need out in the real world."

To measure the effectiveness of these courses this past semester, participating faculty members were asked to complete a reflective questionnaire. Trippel has spent part of the summer analyzing this data, and the initiative will determine what recommendations or changes are needed.

"As we continue in the fall semester, we'll be able to come back and get some feedback as to what worked and what could be done better," says Hyland. "Then simultaneously we'll try to capture the story so that we can share this at the national level of what engaged scholarship is and what the metropolitan university can do."

In other words, the models built by the initiative are not solely intended to help the University and the surrounding community. Hyland hopes to use these models to help other Memphis communities.

"What we are doing in the University District is not an end point," says Hyland. "We never want to forget that we are connecting it back to the work that is going on in Frayser or the work in North Memphis or Hickory Hill. You've got to have that cross-fertilization."

Hyland also added that there is a national trend among metropolitan universities becoming involved with their communities. In June, Hyland, Cox and U of M President Shirley Raines participated in a national forum with other urban-serving universities to discuss a national agenda for the future that would tie these urban universities together.

The response from the community has been positive, according to Trippel.

"It has been overwhelmingly great," says Trippel. "People are very happy with it.

"This is far different than what a developer may be working with, so it's a balancing act with helping them understand that as a university and a center of learning we are taking students through a process at the same time we are trying to actively engage in a community process."

Working in conjunction with the initiative is the University Neighborhood Development Corporation (UNDC), which has developed the University Neighborhood Master Plan. Founded in 2003, the UNDC is looking to improve the Highland Strip and surrounding area through a string of neighborhood initiatives and development opportunities.

"The overall goal is the redevelopment of the District and the improvement of the quality of life," says Coulter. "[The University] is right in there with their sleeves rolled up along with the rest of the stakeholders in the area."

In 2005 Looney Ricks Kiss Architects was commissioned to conduct a study to help guide the UNDC. The study's purpose was to help solidify goals and identify possible development projects.

According to the University Neighborhood Master Plan, three developments have recently been proposed, including upscale shopping, residential condominiums and market-rate and student-oriented housing along Highland Street, making it the "Main Street" of the area. These potential additions could help make the University District more pedestrian friendly and create a front door for the U of M.

So whether conducting a health assessment study or looking for creative uses for area buildings or teaming with a neighborhood association, the University District Initiative is searching for new approaches to bring the U of M and the community together in a collaborative effort to benefit the entire area and beyond.

"This is engaged scholarship," says Hyland. "It is something that is very interactive as opposed to the old model of research where you have controls and power. We are trying to look at service learning in a new and creative way that builds upon this knowledge base. As our mission statement says, we are a metropolitan university that is involved in interdisciplinary engaged scholarship."

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