Located in the midst of a thriving urban centre, the University of Toronto, although an active player in the city at times, is often an accessory in the comings and goings of local and commuting Torontonians and the quick snapshots of tourists’ cameras. Students of the university view themselves not only as students, but also as residents of the City of Toronto, an active force in and around the institution.The University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Ottawa are all universities in big cities. The urban environment that these universities inhabit has many other top employers and businesses that keep the city running and other aspects, such as vibrant cultural life, attract residents to live there. The university happens to be in the middle of it all.In a small university town, the picture is quite different. The city that that the university resides in is relatively small — sometimes so small that one of the top employers in the city may be the university, as in the case of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where it is second only to the Canadian Forces Base, employing just under 10 per cent of Kingston’s workforce. The University of Guelph is Guelph’s second highest employer in contrast to the University of Toronto which, despite occupying one of the top spots of employers in the city, is among 13 other companies that employ similar numbers of people. Similarly, the majority of residents in a university town might be students, as in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, home of St. Francis Xavier University, a town with a population of 4,524 and a student population of 5,185 (2011).When students are choosing whether to go to a university in an urban or rural environment, these technical factors are often not their central concerns. Academic programs offered and the reputation of the school’s social life are critical considerations for incoming students, and these are often tied to the school’s location in a city or a town. Homecoming at U of T and at Queen’s have entirely different reputations; while Kingston does not offer the same cultural vibrancy that Toronto does.
While all universities typically offer a normative selection of academic programs, their settings impact the unique interdisciplinary studies they can offer.The University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Concordia University in Montreal, are all located in the heart of busy cities, and all also host Urban Studies programs. These universities are accordingly surrounded by a living, breathing Urban Studies classroom — the city itself.Being immersed in a city while learning about urban environments has its obvious advantages. David Roberts, a professor in Innis College’s Urban Studies program, points out: “Starting in the first year with our Innis One class, we have our students getting out in the community and actually involving themselves in seeing the processes that make the city run.”The various organizations located in cities create increased opportunities for service learning and experiential learning that U of T, and numerous other universities, offers its students. Service learning is described as course-based learning, allowing students to participate in an organized service activity that engages the community, where further reflection allows greater understanding of the content. Many service learning courses can be found at U of T. The Dementia course (HMB440) explores aspects of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2009, the students raised $1,000 by participating in the Alzheimer’s Society Walk for Memories. Not only does service learning help in strengthening understanding of a subject in the present, but it also can help provide knowledge of future opportunities in that field.In contrast to urban universities, the University of Guelph, an example of a university located in a university-town, specializes in Agriculture — with a faculty of Plant Agriculture and programs such as Organic Agriculture and Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics. Guelph is a rural area that allows programs such as these to flourish, as they are enhanced by an on-campus farm, the Guelph Urban Organic Farm, as well as greenhouses and open land so the students have an opportunity for off-campus research experience akin to U of T’s service learning.Colbey Templeman, MSc student in Plant Agriculture at Guelph, comments: “Pursuing an education at the University of Guelph has allowed me convenient access to numerous field locations and research facilities. My graduate research requires me to travel to multiple field locations to collect data. Fortunately, Guelph is ideally situated for such a requirement, and I can be out of the city within as little as five minutes. This would be far more difficult in larger cities.”Although the topics of research may vary between universities in large cities and those in small towns, the quality of research is not necessarily enhanced by being located in a big city. Emily Greenleaf, researcher of teaching and learning in the dean’s office and lecturer for “The University in Canada,” a University College course, suggests: “Especially among academics, their main community is other academics all around the world in their field. So although a university may be in a small town, the academic life of a university is often really cosmopolitan and globally connected… I think the ideas coming into the university, especially on the academic side of things, are really very cosmopolitan no matter where the university is located. Especially when we’re talking about universities with a research mandate and universities where faculty are very involved in the forefront of their field.”
City versus school
Conflict can arise between the institution and the city which hosts it. This divide may be more prominent in a small town than in a big city.In a university town, transient students are moving in and out of residential areas where families are raising children and elderly residents have lived for their whole lives. Disruptions, such as the Queen’s University riots in 2009, can easily cause a community to resent the students and the university that they attend. The Queen’s Town-Gown relations Department was formed in 2011 as a result of the riots and aims to bring students and their community together.Respecting and accommodating all the residents is a very important aspect of sharing a small community. The City of Waterloo has received an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Grant to support an initiative that will change a student neighbourhood’s reputation, which has been burdened with negative stigma attached to large parties and poorly maintained properties.While there are challenges, cities and towns can combine forces for mutual benefit. A university town experiences benefits from the university including — the building and expansion of infrastructure to support the student population, such as restaurants, small neighbourhood stores, and even larger grocery stores. Urban centers and university towns alike benefit directly from some of the facilities within the universities themselves.The University of Waterloo’s Earth Sciences Museum is largely used as an earth-science teaching museum for local schools and natural-science interest groups in southern Ontario. The university at the heart of a university town will also sometimes represent the interest of the community it is hosted by. In 2004, for example, the University of Guelph launched the Ontario Farmland Trust, an organization whose focus was to preserve Ontario’s lands for farming.With the infrastructure and graduates produced from the University of Toronto, small businesses with big ideas are able to leverage public and private partnerships to hire, innovate, and create growth opportunities with the funding from larger institutions and governments. For example, the MaRS Discovery District allows entrepreneurs in the medical, science, and social fields to build their small ideas into global businesses. Opportunities like this create jobs for students, research for faculty, and tactile objects to teach about at the university; in turn, the company gains people and money for its projects.
School spirit, involvement in clubs, and social gatherings are all aspects of student life outside of the classroom. Enthusiasm for these activities differs greatly between students of a college-town and a large city.Becky Eckler, a graduate of Queen’s University, suggests: “Students who choose to go to school in a big city are often picking that school for the city — not for the school. However, students who pick a school in a small town are picking the school for the school. You see a lot more school spirit because they are a lot more enthused about the institution.”At small town universities, homecoming is the event of the year — school colours are painted on faces, and throughout the rest of the year these colours continue to paint the landscape. Noteworthy homecoming events include those at Western and Queen’s, which have been the subject of controversy due to the disruptiveness of the celebrations in their respective host towns.While university-town institutions far exceed urban universities in terms of school identity, personal identity may form to a greater extent when one lives in a city, free of the confinements of a town.Roberts notes: “The community aspect of student life is a lot more spread out [in the city]… you can find your niche outside of the university,” which can help you find new interests and past-times, or just separate your mind from campus and university life. Museums, concert venues, restaurants, and community activities are abundant in a city, but still exist in small towns due to the fact that a university is there. The large demographic of young people attracts businesses to a small town that may not have chosen to set up shop in a small town without a university.Greenleaf adds: “[A university] is obviously a great creative force — it brings in young people, but it also attracts artists and all kinds of entrepreneurial things that cater to students and faculty. And so, the food in a small university town will be a lot better than the food in a town of comparable size without a university. And the music, and the movies that get shown, and all of that — it creates an audience for the kind of cultural activities that we often associate with a bigger city.”When choosing your university, it’s not uncommon to hear the advice that whatever university you choose will be the best one for you — you just have to take advantage of what it has to offer and make it the best one for you. Emily Greenleaf notes on the choice of an urban institution like U of T: “[A] real trait of urban universities, [is] that they can attract people who have a choice to be anywhere; but they want to be in a place like this.”Illustration: Wendy Gu