(TNS) -- Gainesville is starting to see what the University of Florida's commitment to improving the city it calls home looks like in practice.
UF announced this week that it was awarding nearly $313,000 in community research grants. University researchers will be using Gainesville as a living laboratory to develop solutions to problems in our community that also apply to other places facing these same issues.
One project involves testing autonomous vehicles on and around campus. The project is a first-of-its-kind partnership between UF, city government and the Florida Department of Transportation, with the department committing about $1.5 million in funding.
As Gainesville grows, new solutions are needed to address traffic congestion. The Regional Transit System has served our community well in keeping cars off the streets, but advances in driverless vehicles are opening up possibilities beyond traditional buses.
UF's Transportation Institute is already researching these issues, so Gainesville should take advantage of that expertise to help develop its transportation system. Sensors will be installed around 13th Street and University Avenue for the project, paving the way for this technology to be used throughout the city for autonomous vehicles as well as the smart technology already starting to be featured in cars.
Such advances have the promise of reducing congestion and emissions, without the city having to make the major infrastructure investment required for transportation systems such as streetcars. As UF looks to put more of its facilities out in the community, autonomous shuttles could transport students and faculty between those sites and the main campus.
But the UF research projects thankfully go well beyond addressing transportation issues. The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative has highlighted the racial and socioeconomic disparities that plague our community in areas such as education, employment, health and housing. The research awards include projects in these same areas.
Notably one project involves a partnership between UF's Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies and an Early Head Start center in east Gainesville. The project aims to connect evidence-based research on early childhood education with the center's practices.
GNV4ALL has identified a need to improve early childhood education on the east side, recommending underused community centers for this purpose. At the same time, the Alachua County Children's Services Council is looking to expand early education programs. All these efforts should work in unison to ensure opportunities are available to those most in need throughout our community.
The research awards are part of UF's Strategic Development Plan, announced in November, that seeks to shape the campus and surrounding community over the decades ahead. UF's initial discussions of the plan made it sound mostly like a campus-area redevelopment project, but the final version and subsequent efforts have focused more on committing the university to helping improve the community in an initiative dubbed the "New American City."
UF and city officials signed an agreement in February formalizing their partnership in working together on the UF plan and the city's plan for a more citizen-centered government. The research awards show university officials are putting their money where their mouths are, with UF Chief Operating Officer Charlie Lane suggesting more funding might be available in the future.
Addressing persistent problems involving transportation and poverty are exactly the kinds of things that a world-class university should be doing, particularly in the city it calls home. We hope to see additional collaborations between the UF and Gainesville, helping improve the quality of life for everyone in our community.
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