It was only appropriate, President John Fry said last week, that a two-day conversation on the future of American cities take place at Drexel.
That’s because pushing Philadelphia forward through the rest of the century and beyond is central to Drexel’s plans for the future, he said. On Nov. 13, more than 200 people came to Drexel’s University City Campus for “City Age: The New American City,” and it was clear when Mayor Michael Nutter joined Fry on the stage that City Hall considers Drexel to be a vital leader for the city’s future, as well.
“We are depending on the city,” Fry said. “They are depending on us. We recognize that we’re completely bound up with each other in terms of our future success.”
Fry and Nutter took part in their keynote talk fresh off a trade mission to Israel, where they took part in the signing of a new research agreement involving Drexel, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The leaders agreed during their chat that universities can be crucial engines of development and innovation for forward-looking cities. Both concentrated on the example of the Innovation Neighborhood, Drexel’s vision for a new research-based, mixed-use district that would provide a vibrant front door to the University City campus from 30th Street Station.
“At Drexel, we have staked our very reputation on defining what it means to build a city and a region for the 21st century and beyond,” Fry said during an address before his talk with Nutter.
The Innovation Neighborhood plan is an ambitious one, and rightly so, Nutter said. But having already acquired 12 acres of underutilized land adjacent to the campus — the future home of a redeveloped “superblock” — Drexel has a license to “dream big,” the mayor said.
“That plan is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in decades here in Philadelphia,” Nutter said.
Drexel’s spot next to 30th Street Station — “the nation’s third-busiest train station, basically on the 50-yard line of the Eastern seaboard,” Fry said — combined with its capacity for innovation give the University a responsibility to lead the charge in Philadelphia’s economic development. During his address, he showed the audience what that development might look like, including a projection of how the city could look in the year 2041, with its focal point projected to move west from Center City toward the Schuylkill River and University City.
Nutter said he’s constantly interacting and partnering with Drexel and the city’s other colleges and universities, joking that he’s spent more time on Drexel’s campus as mayor than he spent on the University of Pennsylvania campus while he was an undergraduate there.
With the University depending on the city’s employers for its co-op program, and Drexel having pledged to become the nation’s most civically engaged university, its binds with the city are many, Fry said. And that’s the way it should be, he said, if Drexel wants to educate its students to be the kinds of leaders who can help drive progress in cities like Philadelphia in the future.
“If we’re out there as a university preaching to them about the value of civic engagement and giving back to your community, and we’re sitting on the top of the hill in the ivory tower with a moat around us — I mean, they’re smart enough to figure out we’re not walking the walk,” Fry said.
Fry and Nutter’s conversation about the role of university partnerships in American cities was just one of a variety of talks and panels during the two-day City Age gathering on Wednesday and Thursday. Other sessions tackled more issues for the cities of the future, including innovation, the arts, manufacturing and the possibility of high-speed rail. More than 40 speakers — mayors, business executives, entrepreneurs and others — took part.
The Philadelphia event was the ninth CityAge installment held around North America, following discussions held in New York, Kansas City, Toronto and elsewhere about building cities of the future. Upcoming CityAge events will be held in Seattle and London. The events work to foster partnerships and ideas among business, government and other groups.