Saving Cities With Community Colleges

Here’s the problem. You have dozens of small to medium-sized cities sprinkled throughout New England, and nearly all of them have seen better days when it comes to urban vitality. Boston is the big exception. But most of our other cities are not aging too well. What can we do about it?

This is a complex problem, and there are many factors in the long decline of many of these former powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution. But when Deval Patrick suggested in his State of the Commonwealth address that we need to re-focus our Community Colleges on improving the fit between the skills of the unemployed and the needs of Massachusetts employers, he was onto another big opportunity as well.

We should locate all of our community colleges in the under-populated cores of older cities.

By moving our continuing education centers to the older city centers, we could do two things at once: improve the prospects for our fellow citizens while simultaneously re-energizing these excellent downtowns.

There are 15 community colleges spread throughout Massachusetts, with more than 110,000 students enrolled. And by perhaps consolidating some of them into large urban institutions, we could make our people more employable and provide lots of new residents for our downtowns. This would be an investment with benefits that would multiply. The institutions could occupy existing, underutilized building stock in many of these cities and provide much-needed street traffic to revitalize commercial life. Also, this concentration of younger people would revitalize the cultural life of our aging older cities.

Many of these cities (Worcester, New Bedford, and Lawrence, for example) have lots of civic infrastructure left from their more prosperous 19th century past. This strategy would allow some of that to be reused, and for our communities to take advantage of that earlier investment before it decays beyond recognition.

Portland, Maine, offers a case in point. The Maine College of Art occupies a giant former department store in the middle of the historic downtown and ensures that the beautiful 19th century city streets are filled with people at all times of day. It joins several other colleges and universities in the area, including the University of Southern Maine, but it’s the Maine College of Art that sits right in the downtown, filling commercial square footage with studios and active life.

It’s true that there’s a reason why community colleges are often set in comparatively isolated suburban campus settings. These allow for ample parking, expansion, cheap land, and newer buildings. But the investment in our older cities has already been made, and with this new call to reinvent, maybe it’s time to revitalize our aging cities, too.