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The New American College Town (Review)

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Part 1, which is both brief and powerful, offers a definition of what is meant by the concept of a “new” American college town



The posting below is a review by Daniel J. Harper* of the book, The New American College Town: Designing Effective Campus and Community Partnerships by James Martin, James E. Samels & Associates. Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore, MD 21218. 2019 328 Pages ISBN 978-1421432786 The review appeared in Planning for Higher Education. Volume 48, Number 4, July-Sep 2020. Society for College and University Planning Copyright © 2020 Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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The New American College Town (Review)


Without a doubt higher education is changing in big ways in the 21st century. Visions of ivy-covered buildings on campus and fall homecomings are still present in our thinking, even while the advent of online education, shifting student demographics, and ever-changing funding models are just a few of the things implicating the future of higher education. How we understand and plan for the relationship between colleges and universities and the towns and cities they are associated with in the new paradigm is altering. The New American Town: Designing Effective Campus and Community Partnerships, edited by James Martin and James E. Samels, tackles the continually evolving dynamic. The intention is to help constituents on both sides of the town-gown relationship understand and better plan for our collective future.


In this three-part book, the editors start with a not-to-be-skipped preface, which highlights some of the authors who contribute chapters to the text. Martin and Samels frame the writing that follows from authors from a range of backgrounds in a meaningful and important way. They reveal to the reader that the book presents diverse viewpoints on the evolution of college towns. Chapter authors include university presidents, town mayors, planners, financial officers, and more. The authors of each chapter present first-hand knowledge and personal examples. As a result, this text reflects the unique characteristics of college and university towns and their affiliated institutions that collectively make up contemporary US higher education. Certainly, those of us actively engaged in the field recognize the fact that variation exists across institutions, and the chapters collected for this volume help to elucidate that point. Martin and Samels are careful to identify that the relationships occurring between town and gown cannot be discussed in a singular manner. By their including an assortment of perspectives by a variety of authors, they make that fact clear to the reader. 

Part 1, which is both brief and powerful, offers a definition of what is meant by the concept of a “new” American college town. Martin and Samels provide a straightforward list of five drivers of those towns. They follow that by reporting from their research findings what the specific features are that qualify the college towns as new. The reader, whether holding the town perspective or the campus perspective, is able to consider their own reality and examine possible paths forward toward developing a fresh planning framework. The second half of Part 1 underscores the importance of considering what comes next. It identifies poor planning efforts and lack of effective communication as key sources of trouble for town-gown relationships. As a whole, Part 1 strongly advocates for creating a blueprint for the future and lists leading practices for fostering positive and collaborative opportunities. 

Part 2, comprised of seven case-study chapters, focuses on institutional leadership and the role it plays in creating the new American college town through establishing successful town-gown relationships. From Wiewel and Flynn’s discussion of urban-serving universities in chapter 3 to Drumm’s perspective of community colleges in chapter 9, each chapter highlights a unique type of college or university. The reader can appreciate the potential of different styles of leadership and planning in play at each individual institution. As part of the selection process for chapters in Part 2, the editors have keenly chosen examples that highlight popular themes in contemporary higher education, including community engagement, innovation, and the college town as a driver of regional economy. While chapters present the realities of distinctive scenarios, they each showcase how thoughtful leadership and planning help to plot a path for the future.

Part 3, which moves away from a campus-centric viewpoint and a focus on campus-based leadership, offers the reader diverse perspectives from authors—all with an eye for planning—beyond the campus. From designers and architects to attorneys and city planners, this section of the text shares insight from those who have worked with, reported on, and partnered with higher education. It includes straightforward suggestions for planning best practices and recommendations. Part 3 tackles philosophical and pragmatic topics. The thought-provoking content will deliver perceptive viewpoints to campus-based leadership, while also inspiring those who partner with the academic community.

Although listed in Part 3 in the table of contents, the concluding chapter of the book takes a decidedly different look at planning than the previous 10 chapters in that section. By closing the book with Joel Garreau’s study of Deep Springs College, the reader is challenged to ponder the future. Some readers, those who embrace change, may find the Deep Springs College example and the presented vision of the future as inspiring; others who are fond of tradition may find it unsettling. 

As suggested by the editors, The New American College Town does indeed fill a gap in the literature on city and campus planning. It offers the reader a chance to step away from their own vantage point and consider the broader view of the town-gown relationship and the continually changing role of higher education in American society. The reader is able to consider their own experience and where it is situated in the larger context of how higher education will advance. By offering such a broad picture, this book serves as a valuable resource for institutional administrators and city and town leaders and their constituents. Seasoned professionals and those newer to their respective roles will gain insight into the future of the American college town. Perhaps most important, The New American College Town challenges us to look forward, instead of reviewing a retrospective of higher education. In an era of drastic change, such consideration for what comes next and how to get there is critical.




Daniel J. Harper, PhD, is an assistant professor of interior architecture at Ohio University in Athens. He has served as the assistant dean for facilities and IT for Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts and has been part of the strategic planning for the university. Harper has also been the past regional chair for the Interior Design Educational Council (IDEC) and currently is associate editor for IDEC EXCHANGE. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, Academic Library Makerspaces: A Practical Guide to Planning, Collaborating, and Supporting Campus Innovation.

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