Book review: University City: History, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District

reviewed by Ellen Munley Mulcahy

10 Aug 2023, 3:34 p.m.

University City book cover

Laura Wolf-Powers, University City: History, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022; 204 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-51282-273-1, US$39.95/£36.00 (hbk)


In University CityHistory, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District, Laura Wolf-Powers, Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College, compares two periods of redevelopment that occurred 50 years apart in West Philadelphia, home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, among other educational and medical institutions. She argues that since the 1960s, urban planning’s approach to redevelopment and the political processes of redevelopment have changed significantly to become more inclusive of poor and non-white groups being displaced. However, when the leadership of contemporary anchor institutions use their influence within a city to create ‘innovation districts’ in nearby neighbourhoods, due to an unequal balance of power in the planning process, the costs of these developments are borne disproportionately by poor and non-white groups, just as the costs of urban renewal were, and public officials and advocates for redevelopment fail to account or plan for how the benefits can be fully shared by all community members.

Spearheaded by the University of Pennsylvania, the first development effort examined in the book occurred in the 1960s and resulted in the construction of the University City Science Center, the country’s ‘first and oldest technology park’ (p. 2), a complex of laboratory and office buildings marketed to private science research companies. The construction of the Science Center was part of an urban renewal initiative focused on an area bordering Penn’s campus, a majority-Black neighbourhood known as the Black Bottom that was home to more than 3000 people and 69 businesses. Federal urban renewal dollars were used to raze and replace the Black Bottom with offices, laboratories, university and hospital buildings and a new science-focused public high school, University City High School.

Fifty years later, UPenn’s neighbour, Drexel University, partnered with developers to build two mixed-use complexes immediately adjacent to its campus. The projects were meant to expand upon the technology park model of the Science Center by adding residential and commercial spaces and more laboratory and office space to the immediate vicinity of Drexel’s campus, creating a ‘live–work–play’ community intended for knowledge workers with relatively high incomes and consumer preferences to match. In this case, the redevelopment process did not involve direct displacement of residents, but nearby residents believed their community was existentially threatened by the development, which they feared would alter their neighbourhood’s housing market and displace long-time residents. Community members first felt the impact of the innovation district development when the University City High School was sold to Drexel by the school district and torn down to make way for one of these complexes.

The book consists of four main chapters. In Chapter 1, the author provides a well-researched, detailed account of the actions of the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC), a coalition of West Philadelphia’s universities and hospitals led by the University of Pennsylvania, as it pursued its redevelopment agenda and contended with opposition from residents of the Black Bottom. The chapter describes the WPC’s and residents’ competing efforts to influence Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority in its decisions about clearance, preservation and the use of federal urban renewal funds. Photos and maps chosen to illustrate this chapter provide the reader with a visual narrative of how the universities’ plans dominated the outcome.

Chapter 2 draws a historical through-line between the development projects of the 1960s and the 2010s by presenting a history of community organisations in the nearby majority-Black neighbourhood of Mantua. The chapter details the organisations’ connections to the 1960s urban renewal that destroyed the Black Bottom, and their role as touchstone and inspiration for contemporary community organisations that challenged Drexel’s innovation district development. Chapter 3 focuses on the 2012 plan by Drexel University to coordinate the development of an innovation district in its immediate vicinity, and contrasts the goals and values expressed by that plan with those expressed in planning documents released by community organisations in that same timeframe, comparing the visions that each group had for the neighbourhood. Chapter 4 describes the competition between the interests of the university and multiple residents’ organisations in the planning processes for the innovation district projects, how urban political institutions structured that competition, and which of their demands prevailed.

The book’s appeal and approach are interdisciplinary: it speaks to urban planning, uses historical and ethnographic research and engages with topics like power, stigma and local political processes that are relevant to political science, sociology and geography. Urban planners studying innovation districts and other kinds of expansion by anchor institutions will find a critique of an assumption inherent in some of the innovation district literature: that the financial gain derived from an innovation district’s economic activity will be broadly shared with existing residents and community members, and that the benefit of this financial gain will outweigh the harm done by displacement. Wolf-Powers challenges this assumption by considering the mechanisms by which the benefits of redevelopment are distributed, and articulating ways in which structural racism and systemic inequality prevent this distribution from being equal. This investigation is necessary because whether and how benefits will be broadly shared is a ‘question that city officials rarely ask as urban universities propose new neighborhoods in partnership with developers’ (p. 96).

Political scientists who focus on the distribution of power in urban planning decisions will be interested to study Chapters 1, 3 and 4 as case studies in community decision-making. The same chapters will appeal to those studying problem definition and narratives in policymaking. The book provides clear comparisons of the power wielded by universities and by the organisations that opposed their redevelopment plans. Equally interesting is a comparison of the success of two different residents’ organisations, one representing a wealthier, white neighbourhood, and one a lower-income, Black neighbourhood, in their attempts to influence the outcome of Drexel’s innovation district plans.

Last, the book will be of interest to sociologists and geographers studying political and planning outcomes for places stigmatised by their association with poverty and with groups racialised as non-white. This stigma helped to justify development in both time periods, as did the contrasting association of positive characteristics with private capital and skilled workers:

In the case of innovation districts constructed in formerly discredited spaces, social elites and private sector real estate investment become associated with skill, knowledge, and vitality . . . The elevation of these associations, and their affirmation in public policy, normalizes the marginalization of residents of low socioeconomic status and devalues the nonfinancial investments they have made in neighborhoods (p. 14).

The history told here suggests two questions to be further pursued by planners, geographers, political scientists and sociologists: first, how much do these changes in governance of redevelopment matter if they do not significantly change the distribution of power exercised in planning or the unequal outcomes; and second, what could be done differently by planners, political leaders and community groups to make the university-adjacent development more equitable in reality, and not merely in rhetoric?

In the concluding chapter, Wolf-Powers argues for the importance of history to residents, planners and powerful institutions. Community organisations were inspired by their knowledge of the history of university-led displacement in their neighbourhood to challenge Drexel’s contemporary redevelopment plans. History can inform the efforts of planners who would pursue a reparative approach and more equitable outcomes of redevelopment. Finally, she challenges universities to attend to the historical events that have shaped their surroundings, where wealth, income, access to education and power are unequally distributed.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Gentrification in Black and White: The Racial Impact of Public Housing Demolition in American Cities by Edward Goetz

Findings by Edward Goetz underscore the central importance of race in understanding the dynamics of gentrification in US cities.

Bridging commercialisation and redevelopment: Jurisdictions and university policy development by Mary Donegan

UBIs bridge university research commercialisation and land redevelopment arms. Divergent adoption patterns reflect distinct legal, political, and personal relations with layered political jurisdictions, pointing to divide between public and private universities.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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