City to host fifth annual Town & Gown Conference

Representatives from cities and colleges throughout California will flock to Berkeley later this week, as the city hosts the fifth annual Town & Gown Conference.

“Town-gown” describes the relationship between large universities and the cities they coexist with. Hence, the conference — which will take place Thursday and Friday at Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Downtown Berkeley — seeks to foster cooperation between the two by bringing city and university officials together to discuss issues they face and different strategies to try to deal with them.

The conference’s theme this year is resilience, and attendees at the conference will learn about the different tactics some cities and schools are using to combat ongoing economic issues and prepare for potential natural disasters.

“Obviously cities and universities are both battling budget cuts,” said Esther Gulli, deputy director of Government and Community Relations for UC Berkeley.  “We’re also looking toward potential events related to climate change and earthquakes. We’re trying to prepare for major catastrophes that could occur.”

This year’s conference will feature all-day events with multiple speakers, group breakout sessions, walking tours of UC Berkeley’s campus and Downtown Berkeley, as well as panel discussions.

According to Gulli, the conference is sold out, with over 200 people planning to attend. Attendees will include college presidents, government relations representatives and capital project planners from universities across the state, as well as mayors and city administrators. A number of students will also attend the conference — about 15 from UC Berkeley, five from Berkeley City College and one from UCLA, according to Gulli.

Keynote speakers for the conference will include Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, UC Berkeley public policy professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, author Mark Hertsgaard and Paul Saffo, futurist and managing director for Discern Analytics, a group that provides investment strategies for companies.

The annual conference was started by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Riverside Mayor Ronald Loveridge six years ago through the League of California Cities. At the time, many college cities — including Berkeley — were embroiled in legal battles with neighboring universities due to land issues. Bates and Loveridge wanted to create a way to highlight the overwhelmingly positive aspects of the relationships between cities and universities.

“Sometimes it takes leaving the office and even community for leaders to really be able to strategize and think creatively about certain issues,” said Julie Sinai, chief of staff for Bates. “Hopefully this will open some doors of creative thought. It may also affirm some of the work others are doing.”

The conference location alternates between northern, central and southern California. Since its conception six years ago, the conference has been held in Davis, Los Angeles, San Luis Vista and Riverside. The conference skipped a year in 2009, when budget cuts caused universities and cities to freeze their travel budgets, according to Sinai.

“It has come a long way,” Bates said. “Initially it was such that we were trying to create better relationships between towns and universities. Things have certainly improved a lot, and now we’re at a stage where we’re hoping people will come away with good ideas about how to strengthen local economies and bounce back from natural disasters.”

Image Courtesy: Esther Gulli, deputy director of Government and Community Relations for UC Berkeley

Adelyn Baxter covers city government.