Canadian Geographic - - YOUR SOCIETY - —In­ter­view by Nick Walker

Univer­sity of Toronto pres­i­dent Meric Gertler is a world leader in ur­ban the­ory, fo­cus­ing on the ge­og­ra­phy of in­no­va­tion, cre­ativ­ity and cul­ture in city cen­tres as eco­nomic driv­ers. Be­sides author­ing, edit­ing and co-edit­ing sev­eral in­flu­en­tial books and dozens of aca­demic pub­li­ca­tions, he has been an ad­vi­sor to North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean gov­ern­ments, to the Euro­pean Union and the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, in Paris. Here, he dis­cusses leveraging U of T’s ur­ban lo­ca­tion and reimag­in­ing ed­u­ca­tion in that light.

On the ben­e­fits of the ur­ban lo­ca­tion

As an ur­ban ge­og­ra­pher, it seemed ob­vi­ous that one of U of T’s great­est as­sets was that it has three ma­jor cam­puses in the mid­dle of one of the world’s most dy­namic and di­verse met­ro­pol­i­tan re­gions. There are all kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties on our doorstep, real-life prob­lems that not just our fac­ulty but also our stu­dents, in pro­grams such as ar­chi­tec­ture, ge­og­ra­phy, ur­ban stud­ies or civil en­gi­neer­ing, can and do work on. In the process, they’re not only de­riv­ing fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, they’re help­ing im­prove our com­mu­ni­ties and work­ing with our part­ners.

On the chal­lenge of stu­dent com­mutes

Col­lec­tively, Toronto’s four uni­ver­si­ties (U of T, York, Ry­er­son and OCAD Univer­sity) have about 180,000 stu­dents en­rolled, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom com­mute to and from their cam­puses. And we knew, anec­do­tally, that they’ve been spend­ing a lot of time com­mut­ing, which means less time for stud­ies and other­wise en­gag­ing with life, on or off cam­pus. So I “en­ticed” the other uni­ver­si­ties’ pres­i­dents to col­lab­o­rate with us to help tackle this. We jointly com­mis­sioned, funded and im­ple­mented the first-ever study of daily travel pat­terns of univer­sity stu­dents in the GTA. We now have a fan­tas­tic data­base that we’ve shared with the City, Toronto Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion and Metrolinks to help in­form plan­ning.

On the univer­sity’s part in the wider city

You can think of U of T, both fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally, as a city-build­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion. We have about a bil­lion dol­lars’ worth of cap­i­tal projects un­der­way. As we build new build­ings or ren­o­vate old his­toric prop­er­ties, we’re think­ing a lot more sys­tem­at­i­cally about how that can im­prove the qual­ity of the built en­vi­ron­ment and the ex­pe­ri­ence of Toron­to­ni­ans. We also re­cruit about half our fac­ulty and a quar­ter of our stu­dents from around the world, so the more we do to make this city it­self a draw, the more we help our­selves.

On the flip side: in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence

I think that the more Cana­di­ans who can travel and en­gage with the rest of the world di­rectly, the bet­ter. And U of T isn’t do­ing too badly in that re­gard: we reckon that 15 to 16 per cent of our un­der­grad­u­ates will have some kind of in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence while they’re here. But we would love to dou­ble or triple that. We are leveraging our global con­nec­tions, deep­en­ing part­ner­ships with other great uni­ver­si­ties around the world to fa­cil­i­tate more in­ter­na­tional, ex­pe­ri­en­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties for our stu­dents.

Meric Gertler has been pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Toronto since 2013.

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