As the least populous of a “new species of cities,” Fort Collins may find itself in an enviable position. Dubbed “university cities,” this exclusive group of six metropolitan areas in the United States have much in common. According to a study conducted by Scott Shapiro, in charge of innovation for the mayor’s office in Lexington, Kentucky, these cities may have much to gain by comparing notes and offering future planning advice to each other.
Recently, Fort Collins mayor Wade Troxell, was the keynote speaker at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues held in Lexington, Kentucky. “Like your phone is a platform for apps, we think of our city as a platform for innovation,” Troxell said. He explained that Fort Collins has emphasized quality-of-life improvements such as parks and recreational trails. “We look at this as an investment in the desirability of our community,” he said. “Place matters because people can live where they want to now.”
He pointed out that this investment has helped retain graduates of Colorado State University and spark a young, entrepreneurial culture. “Our goals are incubate, retain, grow and attract,” Troxell said. He attributed success to collaboration among the university, private industry and local government. By accessing university research and talent, Fort Collins has been able to attract high-tech companies and establish a focus on renewable energy industries.
He described the Fort ZED project as an example of collaboration between the university, the municipally-owned electric utility and 13 private sector partners to reduce peak-load energy demand by up to 30 percent in two parts of the city. The partners were able to showcase their technology for customers all over the world.
Shapiro quotes Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he said, “If you want to build a great city, create a great university and wait 200 years.” He explained that the six cities he has identified, Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Lincoln, Nebraska, Lexington, Kentucky and Fort Collins appear to have what he calls “a common DNA.” It is interesting to note that the average age of the universities in these towns is 173 years old.
All are defined as a city having an MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) with a population between 250,000 and one million. In a study conducted by Arnold Stromberg, chair of the statistics department at the University of Kentucky, the six university cities clustered together suggesting that they are more similar to each other than to other cities. Note that Fort Collins qualifies because of it MSA.
All university cities have a diverse economy, a major research university, and at least 10 percent of their population is made up of students. Educational achievement is high and closely related to economic growth, according to the study. Forty-two percent of adults 25 and older in these cities have at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 29 percent for the nation as a whole. These “educated” cities grow faster due to increased productivity levels.
More graduates of schools in university cities tend to stay in town, making the average age in these communities three years younger than the national average. These cities also have lower unemployment rates than non-university cities of similar size. Patents per capita in university cities are more than double the national average and nearly four times the average of other cities of the same size.
Shapiro says that cities must also be “safe and fun” in order to qualify. Violent crime in university cities is an average 40 percent lower than in the nation’s largest cities and 36 percent lower than in cities of similar size.
University cities have close to 50 percent more cultural options—art, entertainment and recreation possibilities per thousand population—than other cities of the same size. While salaries are consistently lower than in the nation’s big cities, a lower cost of living compensates.
Population growth in the six university cities is twice that of the national average over the past decade, a fact that may be putting some of them at risk for affordable housing and traffic density.
That’s why as the smallest of the university cities, Fort Collins, may have more flexibility and more opportunities to plan wisely for expected growth. Shapiro cites Austin, home of the University of Texas where more people moved than to any other city between 2010 and 2013. The city boasts a robust economy but is contending with too much traffic and too little affordable housing.
Because Shapiro believes that it is critical for these cities to collaborate with each other, he is working to host an annual University Cities Summit in Lexington that would promote the sharing of ideas and best practices among representatives of university cities.