On June 4th, OUSA participated in the Town and Gown Association of Ontario’s annual symposium, Building Bridges 2019: A National Forum on Town and Gown Issues and Opportunities. The conference was organized by Brock University, Niagara College, and the cities of St. Catharines, Thorold, Welland, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it brought stakeholders together to discuss issues surrounding campus and community relations and to share ideas, experiences, and methods of best practice.
This was my first town and gown conference, and I was excited to attend and provide student voices to the conversation on town and gown issues across the Province.
I was also eager to talk about the key themes in our just-released Habitats: Students in their Municipalities 2019 – OUSA’s annual publication featuring case studies on municipal-level topics, written by an awesome group of students from Niagara, Hamilton, London, Sudbury, and Waterloo.
I wanted to attend some of the other sessions so I could understand what municipal actors and university administrators were highlighting as key issues and best practices. The Waterloo Town and Gown Committee provided an overview of intersectional town and gown issues, including some successful (and not so successful) efforts to address challenges in three areas: unsanctioned street parties, student mental health and wellness, and community cohesion.
It was encouraging that, throughout this session, the Committee highlighted student engagement and collaboration as a key element in addressing town and gown issues. For example, they emphasized the need to engage with students to understand why certain issues occur as well as the need to collaborate with student unions to gather data on these issues. Students have first-hand experience issues related to housing, transit, and community-cohesion first-hand, making them crucial partners in identifying priority areas. The Committee’s attempts to engage students in these conversations no doubt helped inform the key priority areas and issues that were the focus of this session, many of which aligned with those raised by student authors in Habitats and by students in OUSA’s policy on Housing, Transit, and Community Development.
For example, the Committee identified housing as a priority area, specifically noting concerns around the lack of provincial funding for on-campus housing, barriers to students accessing off-campus and purpose-built student housing, and lack of student awareness of by-laws and their rights as tenants. Not only did the Committee raise these concerns as municipal issues affecting both students and other members of the community, they also recognized how a lack of access to adequate and safe housing is detrimental to students’ mental health and ability to succeed in post-secondary education.
The Committee also raised issues around community cohesion, acknowledging a concern our students have about feeling disconnected from their communities. They recognized the importance of welcoming students into their school’s city and community, and they talked about how immersing students in their municipalities creates community cohesion and increases student retention after graduation, helping cities grow and continue to thrive.
However, while students are beginning to be recognized as stakeholders in these issues, there continues to be a gap in recognizing the need to include them in strategic conversations and decision-making processes. This requires meaningful consultation and collaboration with students, not simply surface-level consultations for the sake of checking off a box. Students offer more than data to identify and understand municipal issues – they are also necessary stakeholders in developing and implementing solutions. Unless they are included in these processes, it is unlikely that the solutions to the problems identified will be effective and meet the needs of students. Current strategies to address these issues have been criticized by students as paternalistic, and in some cases discriminatory. Without students contributing to strategies to address intersecting town and gown issues in their municipalities, it is likely that these criticisms will remain and challenges will persist.
Ultimately, however, I left Building Bridges feeling energized and encouraged. While there are still gaps in student engagement on town and gown issues, there seems to be an appetite to address these gaps at all levels. Other attendees - almost all of which, unfortunately, were not students - were receptive to the idea of collaborating with students and were genuinely curious about OUSA’s strategy for getting students more involved. I believe that the biggest hurdle is creating space for students at these decision-making tables. Not only should there be more students at conferences like Building Bridges, but there should be an active effort to accommodate their participation on local town and gown committees and students should be respected as equals in decision-making processes.
I therefore urge anyone who cares about town and gown issues to make a concerted effort to ensure that student voices are included by reaching out to your local student association where you will find committed advocates for student well-being and a gateway into a segment of the population that is typically overlooked as a key stakeholder.
I’m looking forward to continuing to these conversations and working with municipal partners and university administrators to create space for student voices in order to make our communities safe and livable for all residents.