Talking University-Led Urban Regeneration Blues

Recap: Beyond the Red Line: How are Universities Re-Imagining Cities and Urban Communities through their Spatial Development Plans?

University College London | 26 January 2016

This January, the UCL Urban Lab hosted a workshop exploring university-led community development to celebrate the hardcopy launch of a series of case studies conducted by Clare Melhuish. The event marked the culmination of a research initiative that itself was stimulated by UCL’s own forays into campus development in East London – now emerging as UCL East. Speakers, who were drawn from universities (and beyond) across the United Kingdom, provided a thought-provoking discussion across two panels on the possibilities and challenges for urban universities in the 21st century as they look to improve their campuses, student experiences, research facilities, and city habitats.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London: Future home to UCL East (Wikimedia Commons)

The first panel addressed the key drivers of university development, with the conversation exploring how university’s spatial planning can more effectively balance academic and estates issues while remaining sensitive to urban renewal agendas beyond their campus boundaries. Martin Summersgill, Project Director of UCL East and previous Director of Masterplanning and Development at Imperial College, kicked off the proceedings. Summersgill argued U.K. planning processes have steadily built the power of local communities since the 1970s and with this, universities are now more acutely aware of their actions on their local reputations. The challenge, then, centers of creating connections between campus and city sites and making sure campus (re)developments form the critical mass necessary for benefits to ripple beyond the campus itself. Key strategies for both UCL East and Imperial College West have included bringing in business and the public sector to work alongside universities when developing genuinely mixed use sites. A similar story was regaled by Bob Allies, a key consultant working on the Legacy Masterplan for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Allies highlighted the central role played by universities in several of London’s major on-going developments but, more importantly noted that unlike urban plans (which focus on creating spaces and places), university master planning is about use. Different institutions have different priorities, needs, and visions for the future. Ray Hudson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Durham University picked up this theme when discussing the long term development of a university campus in Stockton. Here, it was not just town-gown issues but inter-university tensions that shaped the creation of new campus’ curricula, strategic planning, and outreach. Competition between regional institutions for the same pool of students and faculty has significantly impacted campus for the University of Northampton, according to Sabine Coady Schabitz, founding Director of the University’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment. In this context, spatial planning has been used as a tool to foster interaction and interdisciplinarity through new hubs and clusters. The task of linking the new campus to the rest of the city – despite its central location – persists however.

The event’s second panel shifted focus to concentrate on universities’ ability to effectively communicate their visions and forge mutually beneficial partnerships with their local communities. The University of Manchester’s Andrew Karvonen examined the central role universities are assuming in “Corridor Manchester“, and the “Northern Powerhouse”more broadly. With the knowledge economy being increasingly viewed by city and regional leaders as an essential growth driver, universities are now being recognized as more than just landowners and student attractors, but as pioneering research centers. Planning and decision-making utilizing universities in Manchester, though, has tended to be opaque. While there is a rhetoric of social inclusion, economic competitiveness appears to have trumped the city’s universities’ civic missions. Stephanie Glendinning from the University of Newcastle provided a more optimistic account of Newcastle’s Science City initiative, including the prospect of campus development serving as an exemplar of urban sustainability. Shifting governance regimes at the national and local scales have moved the project’s goalposts over time. Consequently, Glendinning argued there is a need to realize a strong visual and narrative discourse capable of securing the vision of Newcastle as a future smart city. This not only revolves around public outreach, but encouraging academics themselves to get invested in civic engagement. Director and Founder of Brixton Green, Brad Carroll, offered a refreshing perspective on community-led development from outside the walls of the academy. The key message offered was that dealing with the community is not like dealing with a single, homogenous body. You need to develop different languages to address different stakeholder, even when there is a broad consensus on the issue at hand. The panel concluded with some pertinent lessons from Kim Townsend, UCL Public Engagement Coordinator (East). As the majority of people in the city, and the country, have not attended university (something perhaps all too easily lost for those inside the academic bubble), we need to be clearer about what the university is, what is does, and how communities can think about leveraging these institutions more effectively. Permeable designed spaces are good, but they are not enough: universities need to create environments and spaces where communities have a reason to visit, and feel like they belong.

What might community-led university regeneration look like?

Across the panels, there was a clear sense universities are thinking more rigorously about their relationships to their urban contexts. However, dealing with university-led regeneration, by default, establishes the needs of the university first (usually around estates issues) – they are the priority in the last instance. Flipping the tables, we ought to ask what might community-led university regeneration look like? We need to think seriously about how universities can change their strategic objectives and institutional structures to foster ethical and collaborative urban transformations. Foregrounding the soft infrastructure of university engagement and spatial development must be a priority here in a way it has not been up to this point. Town and gown issues will persist so long as the university and urban communities meet on an uneven playing field with unequal power relations. Events like Beyond the Red Line, and detailed empirical work such as that undertaken by Melhuish, are an important step in unpacking these challenges and following, identifying instances for a more progressive planning and politics to emerge at the university-city nexus.

  • Jean-Paul Addie



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