We Haven't Seen This for a While: Big Campus Cash for Urban Planning

Here's a surprising fact: The Atlanta BeltLine, a new transportation and economic development effort that brings together railways, trails, greenspace, housing and art, began as a master's thesis project in the late 1990s. A recent New York Times article titled "What Happened to the Great Urban Design Projects?" notes that former Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel mentioned his thesis during an office meeting at an architecture firm. The idea gained traction and the rest is history.

That Times article held up the Atlanta BeltLine as a shining example of urban planning done right in a field that is no longer as groundbreaking as it once was. America's infrastructure is lagging behind and our confidence in government to solve these problems has waned as well. And while urban planning programs were often hotspots on campus in earlier times, that hasn't seemed so true lately. Certainly, we haven't seen these programs attracting the attention of many deep-pocketed donors. 

But this might be changing. Maybe with some new resources, campus urban programs can once again operate at the cutting edge. 

Now there's news of a $35 million gift to University of Chicago by alumni couple Joe and Rika Mansueto. The money will launch the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, "bring[ing] together programs in the social, natural, and computational sciences and in the humanities to enhance the University’s strengths in urban scholarship and education."

Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife Rika are strong patrons of their alma mater, previously giving $25 million to support construction of a library bearing their name. More broadly, as we've reported before, this billionaire couple has stepped up their philanthropy in recent years. Much of that giving has focused in Chicago so far, but this is a couple with wide interests. 

Related: A Quick Rundown of the Mansueto Foundation's Chicago Philanthropy

As for the latest big gift, Joe Mansueto had this to say: “The dramatic rise in large cities over the past 50 years has created some of society’s most difficult problems and most promising opportunities. Rika and I want to put some of our resources towards addressing these issues."

The institute will tackle a range of problems, including healthcare, housing policy, and even reducing violence. This broad, interdisciplinary approach is noteworthy. Going back to that Times article for a moment, it cautions against engineers and planners who only crunch numbers and focus on metrics. At the end of the day, cities only work if people are happy. I learned that in SimCity.

It's about time that campus urban programs got some serious love from donors. After all, cities comprise a red-hot funding area right now among a lot of foundations, as we often report. We wouldn't be surprised to see more individual donors follow Joe and Rika Mansueto into this space, looking to universities they know as a venue for interesting work.