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Why Are Students So Inconsequential to Providence Politics?

Tonight, City Council will likely pass exclusionary zoning (link to last week's vote; I'll update after tonight's second vote) against college students. Not only will City Council likely approve the measure, but Mayor Jorge Elorza has been clear that he will not veto it. There are all sorts of environmental, social, and legal reasons that I think this is problematic, and I won't rehash that here. A remaining question of interest, though, is why Providence politicians feel so immune from the wrath of college students. It seems odd, if not for moral reasons, then certainly for Realpolitik reasons, that no one is concerned that they'll lose their seat to a student challenger, or even to someone in their thirties or forties speaking to a student-oriented base.

Barack Obama visiting Temple University (NY Times), from the 2012 election
that also brought urbanist-leaning and anti-death penalty Tom Wolf to the
governor's mansion.
I did a little sleuthing, because it goes without saying that Providence is a fairly college-oriented town, but I wasn't really sure how to quantify that. The Wikipedia page on Providence colleges and universities states that there are close to 45,000 enrolled post-secondary students in our city*. It's not clear from this information what the percentage of students are who actually live in the city proper. Certainly, many Brown or RISD students bleed into East Providence or Pawtucket, and some of the other campuses are known for dispersed student bodies. There's also the factor of students who don't go to school in Providence (like Bryant students) who may live in Providence.

Considering that Providence has a population around 170,000, the figure of 45,000 is nothing at all the sneeze at That's more than a quarter of the population (and, of course, the population as a whole includes children and other non-voters). Even if that figure is double the residency rate (i.e., half the students are commuting from elsewhere to Providence) that would still make students a very large electoral base.

I went to Temple University, in Philadelphia. The Citylab article I looked up on top college residency towns lists Philadelphia as high up there with 450,000 students, though those figures are listed for the metro. Philadelphia itself is about the size of the 'Gansett Bay and has 1.6 million people, but the metro is around 5-7 million, depending upon how you measure your figures. Providence isn't listed within the article, but arguably 45,000 students make a much larger impact on such a small city and metro area than they might in Philadelphia, which is one of the nation's largest.
Groningen's famed traffic circulation plan isn't unusual for Europe today. 
Though the city is less dense than Providence car use is much less a factor there, 
as in many European college towns and cities. But at the time of its implementation,
students were striking out into new territory.

When I went to Temple, people would stumble at me four at a time to register me to vote. Philadelphia is a major liberal hub in a purple state, and though Pennsylvania has gone for the Democrats several contests in a row, sometimes with margins as blue as Texas has gone red, it's still the huge turnout of black, Latino, and student votes that makes that a reality. The suburban fringe around Pittsburgh and Philly and a couple of smaller cities like Allentown have some effect, but Philly proper and Pittsburgh proper are the grand prizes: what Clinton strategists referred to as the liberal hubs on the edges of "Pennsyltucky". 

I've never encountered anyone trying to register me to vote. And I do walk through Brown and RISD's campuses quite a lot, despite not being a student there. This has always struck me as strange, but then again, on a national stage Rhode Island is both very homogenous and very small, so that figures.

I think Rachel would have a different memory of life in Philly, because she was a photojournalist at the time and spent a lot of effort paying close attention to the city council and mayoral strife in the Street and Nutter years, but for me most of the politics I paid attention to as a college student happened at the state level or above. I was concerned about the war, about things like climate change, and so on. I wonder whether students in Providence have the same overall disinterest in local politics that I once had.

But whatever the reasons for students' disengagement, I don't think it's a permanent problem. I have spoken before to other like-minded political people about their attempts to organize students on their campuses, because as an outsider to Rhode Island campus culture I'm curious to get their views. The impression I've gotten is that a lot of the people I associate with, like me, spent their college years concerned about big issues that were on a national or international stage, and that they often were trying to convince their fellow students (some of them quite privileged) to care about the plight of people who, unfortunately, the students didn't care about. But I haven't heard much about why students don't organize themselves here for things that matter to their own lives: Why have I written and spoken many times as a non-student resident to Brown and RISD officials about the need for their universities to take a larger role in pushing for protected bike lanes and such, but still see hapless Brown kids biking nervously in mixed traffic? Why is public transportation so bad? Why is there no strong push for affordable student housing, and indeed, for affordable housing that would allow students to stay here once they graduate? These are the kinds of issues that we ought to be organizing about, because if we want to stop the next oil war or prevent climate change, we have to get these things done too.

Protest in Amsterdam, near what would one day become the
I AMsterdam landmark. Students, young people, parents, and
others joined a protest movement that took to the streets and
the polls to change things. And the changes came quickly.

The Wikipedia on Groningen lists 53,000 students living in that city. Groningen is a city of about Providence's population size, though it's actually significantly less dense. So students play a slightly larger role in the population of the "World's Cycling City" (video), but not far out of proportion to what's here. Accounts of the changes in transportation in Groningen recall a massive student movement to take control of the municipal government. It was with this power that Groningen first got its traffic circulation plan, which barred through-traffic of cars through the city, and only allowed them access locally in individual quarters. Without knowing deeply about the institutions of Dutch collegiate life, I can't be sure what other factors allowed this to happen, though the pattern is also present in other countries' college towns, like Cambridge, UK (and the UK, as a whole, is no more a cycling city than the U.S.). But I think the time is now for people who care about Providence's future to start finding out those answers. We need to register student voters, and form voting blocks around issues like fair housing and transportation, and join in coalition with the people who also care about those issues (I guess that would mean me, since I'm not a student...). 

I think we can transform this city with this strategy. The aims of students for fair housing and transportation are the same aims that many other constituencies in this city have. Just imagine the force of change that low-income and student-based organizing could have if it connected on these limited issues.

For those of you who are shaking fingers at me for using Wikipedia, I used it the right way. The citations list the various school campuses' webpages and numerate specific counts for each. I've contacted some sources to see if there is reliable information on residency rates. I don't have those now, but if I get them I'll update.


  1. I will make one warning about the Groningen comparison: in the Netherlands, everyone bikes, so the class of people who would be anti-bike NIMBYs in the US support cycling. Those same people remain similar to American NIMBYs in other ways - for example, it's my understanding that Amsterdam's undergone a lot of white flight recently because ZOMG Muslim Immigrants Are Destroying Dutch Liberalism. So the social relations may well be similar, but the transportation outcomes are different.

    1. Anti-immigrant racism is a big problem there as well as here, for sure.

      The understanding I have from Bike Dutch, View From the Cyclepath, and Streetfilms is that NIMBYs did not embrace the student plan when it debuted. Businesses hated it (until their profits grew). The same was said by Jan Gehl about Copenhagen, and it fits with a lot of other places too. So presumably the students were making a radical break with the recent past in the '70s.