CITY AND CAMPUS : universities as spatial agents

I have always been interested in the strategic roles that the university, as a building type, can play in the transformation and growth of the city, in all its dimensions… socially, politically, environmentally, economically, culturally and spatially. This is the first of two posts in which I will focus on the spatial dimension because that’s where it all comes together.

Higher education is a globally competitive sector. It’s an expanding market, and universities are leveraging their competitive advantages to grow and transform themselves. So here’s a tantalizing question: Is campus design part of that strategy and, if so, how does it impact its urban neighbourhood?

To find out, consider these two hypothetical scenarios. Scene one is a contemporary urban campus. The first thing that strikes you is its detachment from the city grid surrounding it. Surveillance cameras, card-controlled boom gates, and uniformed guards ensure that the campus is a sliced-off enclave. It is a gated community that shuns passers by. Now add to this physical reality several other facts: budgets have been cut and more must be done with fewer resources, morale is low, and the university does not feature on global league tables.

Scene two is an urbane campus. Campus-city divisions are blurred. A mix of theatres, museums, coffee bars, bookstores, galleries and housing define the campus periphery. Its internal streets and walkways are alive with movement and encounters. It buzzes with cultural and intellectual energy. The campus is simultaneously a shield from outside interruptions, and a seamless part of the city grid. It has evolved according to a design strategy that blends the needs of scholarship and citizenship, seclusion and company. But there’s another side to this: new external direct investment generates additional revenue streams; the university attracts the finest scholars; it is well placed on league tables; it has partnerships with industry players; it is a magnet for endowments and gifts that fund infrastructure, bursaries and research; it is sought after by the very best students, and success brings local relevance and international esteem.

How do we get from scene one, a bleak picture of spatial isolation and academic mediocrity, to scene two, a spatially connected campus that houses one of the world’s best universities? What does it take to transform campuses into polished members of their neighbourhoods? These questions rest on a basic assumption: that the built environment of campuses, and the cities they are part of, can make an upbeat difference to both urban success and academic excellence.

So here’s the thing: Campus designs can nurture academic distinction and become spatial agents of urban regeneration. University leaders should accept that campuses must not remain spatially and socially disconnected from the commotion of their urban neighbourhoods. They can become powerful agents of urban transformation. A university’s positive contribution to community development, urban renewal and local economic growth does depend on interconnected campus-city boundaries.

We should regard the campus-city interface as an opportunity zone. It is where both communities can discover one another and cohere as good neighbours. Here is where scholarship can, indeed should, engage the broader society. Here is where the contending demands of campus seclusion and city inclusion find balance. Here is where the academic experience is enriched through outreach programmes. And here is where students’ contribution to community capacity building can forge an atmosphere of holistic learning.

Creating such an environment means, among other things, making spatial connections between campus layout and city form. And this is where campus design guidelines can help.

In the next article I want to consider a few elementary urban design rules for blending city and campus plans.

Glen Mills, PhD

This material is Copyright (c)2014, Glen Mills. All rights reserved.
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