In April, the American University of Beirut hosted a lecture by Omar Blaik, an urban specialist known for upgrading blighted areas around American universities. Blaik, a Lebanese-American, is renowned for his work in ameliorating the neighborhood around the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, but has consulted with other educational institutions, including the AUB.
Most interesting in Blaik’s approach is his assumption that universities have a proactive economic role to play in their neighborhoods, and must run their affairs like a company. That’s not to suggest he wants them to downgrade their core educational mission too make money. Rather, he argues that such a mission is best served by establishing an adequate social environment for learning. Until a few years ago, the area around UPenn was so dangerous that the university had to cut itself off from its surroundings, undermining its educational objectives.
Blaik has degrees in business administration and engineering, so it’s not surprising his method of reviving university neighborhoods comes through a practical application of several key ingredients, including improved security, a resort to commerce and market forces, use of the university as an functional instrument to reorganize economic relationships in nearby neighborhoods, and the opening up of campuses to their environment, physically, economically, and metaphorically.
This is hardly a new concept. Urban thinking in the 1950s and 1960s was mainly driven by government-mandated planning and implementation, its principal aim being the removal of slums. In cities such as Chicago, Washington, Saint Louis, and others, poor areas were razed to the ground and replaced with modern structures, including low-income housing projects. But slums, in their own way, had much more vitality than what came afterward: personal networks dominated, commerce was evident, people walked the streets, and, though poor, neighborhoods were organic. When these complex systems were forcibly replaced by alienating high-rises from which commercial activity had been mostly zoned out, what ensued was the disintegration of social relations, as people no longer walked or lived in the street (because, in the memorable words of writer Jane Jacobs, there were now “promenades that go from no place to nowhere”), and, as a result, a sharp rise in crime, ensuring commercial activity remain hobbled.
The destructive impact of modern city planning has been well recognized, and more sensible planners like Blaik are the result of this. In striving to shape outcomes in their environments through specific, limited interventions, they display considerable skepticism toward the grand urban notions of the 1950s and 1960s, aimed at creating entirely new entities. These “post-modernists,” or perhaps the “post-post-modernists,” if one can call Blaik and his generation that, also accept that urban environments must be allowed to develop naturally.
In his presentation, Blaik discussed ways AUB might reach out to its environment. The university faces a different set of problems than UPenn did. There is no crime around the AUB. In fact its vicinity is one of the most prosperous in Beirut. But that’s precisely the difficulty. Just as a university may be unable to open up to crime-ridden areas, it can find similar obstacles in secure, wealthy ones as well. Income differences can mean that faculty members and students are unable to live near the institution. High-income buildings rope the university off from more accessible surroundings further afield. In this way, the AUB and Lebanese society can find it harder to interact.
The irony is that for a long time, particularly during the war years, the AUB benefited, at least in terms of its public image, from being cut off from the rest of Beirut. Why? Because that isolation became a part of its mystique, its claim to be an elite institution. But also, when the capital descended into violence the AUB was a splendid, green island of tranquility in a decaying city.
Yet as Blaik remarked, a university must be a living organism in the living organism that is the city. For AUB, or any university, to be closed in upon itself, fortress-like, is to defeat the purpose of an educational mission. That’s why one of Blaik’s most striking recommendations was that the AUB find a way to remove the wall dividing itself from the streets outside. Just as significant was his advice that the university expand outside its walls and shape the environment immediately around, buying property and reworking it to favor contact with the city.
For a long time much of modern urban planning was implicitly directed against capitalism. Markets were seen as generating inequality, so urban environments were unnaturally bent out of shape to impose more egalitarianism. Blaik and others are relevant because they don’t shy away from enlisting capitalism on their side, even if they accept some controls to soften the impact on the most vulnerable. That’s why they are succeeding where their predecessors failed.