A team of faculty from the School of Design of Construction at Washington State University is exploring design ideas with students for that swath of land between the old steam plant at the bottom of engineering hill on the campus of WSU and the Brelsford Visitor Center near downtown. They are interested in your input, be it in the form of ideas, suggestions or concerns. What would you like to see there?

An event headlined “The Gateway Project,” is scheduled from 4:40-6 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Elson Floyd Cultural Center, to provide community members a forum for dialogue and feedback. I am writing to encourage you to attend and participate.

There was a time when cities, small and big, were considered corrupt, dirty and dangerous. No one wanted to associate with them, not least universities lest, they may contaminate the cultivation of the higher mind. Not today. Today, and since at least the ’90s, universities and host cities have come to the realization that they need each other, for economic reasons but a whole host of others as well.

For one, they need each other to become responsible agents of good. Neither university nor city alone will be able to affect change related to climate change, social equity and technological justice alone, as these issues know no boundaries and must be studied and solved in seamless continuity with the world around. Which is not to say that the classroom as an incubator of abstract thought is obsolete, only that at some point the lessons advanced there will need to be examined next to those who will ultimately benefit from them.

We may travel to Seattle, Spokane and other great neighboring cities for that, which is fine, but why not start here? Why not look to local shared spaces to explore and advance academic ideas with industry, be they tech companies, housing developers or medical groups. This could be the space in which great collaborations can see the light of day, between traditional partners, say, engineering and technology but also nontraditional ones, such as literature and physics, art and chemistry.

We live in the middle of a farming community and yet hardly a sign exists in town where that is more than a mere matter of mention. Might this “Gateway Project” involve a community farm, complete with animals, barns, and chicken coops, offering lessons in animal husbandry, including how to grow and consume food sustainably? Why not? Add community rooms, such as those that house computers, maker spaces and other tools shaped by recent advances in technology, and you’ve got an incubator of social and economic development.

None of these ideas is novel but now a critical part of the lexicon of the 21st century college towns. Look at Penn State and its host city State College for instance. It is another town-gown ensemble whose land grant union is not unlike ours, similarly set up to leverage academics to benefit society. According to a recent article published by “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” “Bloomberg recently named State College as the #2 destination in which to live in the U.S.” And this because of “a multifaceted approach,” including hiring a full time Penn State director whose role is proactive, acting as a “liaison between the community and the school.”

Among the many attributes the success of Penn State is noted for, the one around student life is perhaps the most admirable. Rather than treating it as a get in get out pipeline, limited to four or five years, it is recognized as an important phase, pregnant with possibilities. Here space is designed between university and city to foster programs whose purpose is to connect students to the local community, as mentors to K-12 students, as companions to an aging population, or as intellectual assets to a growing business community.

Other examples persist across the country, soon finding benefits well beyond the shared territory concerned, including attracting and retaining great faculty and students. No faculty or student wants to live in a cultural desert, lacking in good and attractive restaurants, lodging, galleries, shopping and more. All seek contexts with which to cultivate healthy and exciting connections, friendships, ideas and the like

The Gateway Project seeks to address these concerns and more. Come on Sept. 9 and contribute your voice and ideas. The stakes are very high.

Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.

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