The University in, of, and for the City

University College London’s UCL 2034 strategic plan declares:

UCL is committed to becoming a global leader in knowledge exchange, enterprise and open innovation. Our relationship to London is central to this commitment. We will bring our profile as London’s Global University and our international connectivity to bear on establishing UCL at the centre of a cluster of organisations that are able to make London the premier destination for higher education, research and innovation in the world. (University College London 2014, 10).

University College London, Gower Street

UCL, in other words, intends to be “in London, of London and for London” (ibid). Drawing on some recent work theorizing urban infrastructure, I want to consider what this might actually mean, in conceptual and concrete terms, for the 21st century urban university. Starting with the proposition that urban universities can no longer be understood as simply located ‘in the city’, I suggest we need to think through the ways in which (and the implications of) higher education institutions being: (1) physically embedded in urban landscapes; (2) produced through place-based governance structures and local labor and student markets; and (3) supportive of urbanization and urban ways of life through the production and dissemination of urban knowledge.

  • Universities IN the city are principally urban as a consequence of their physical location in an urban environment. They may be embedded in city spaces – in campuses that either blend into their surrounding neighborhood or are physically cloistered – but their spatial imaginaries and practices are not contingent upon this urban setting. Rather their core teaching and research functions, and externally-facing ‘third mission’ activities, are strategically oriented in line with political, economic, or social concerns articulated at alternative scales (national, supra-regional, or global). This is not to say productive linkages cannot be forged with local government, economic leaders, and local communities. Universities IN the city still have a significant impact on the economic development, lived experience, and spatial imaginaries of the cities that house them as major landholders, employers, student attractors (and destinations for indigenous students), providers of highly-skilled labor-forces etc. However, these externalities and relations are not central to institutional strategy and practice but are secondary outcomes that formal and informal urban actors may potentially leverage.
  • Universities OF the city, by contrast, actively orient teaching, research, and engagement practices in line with the conditions and requirements of their urban and regional contexts. Their institutional mission and mode of operating is fundamentally conditioned by their urban setting. Course offerings are targeted towards meeting the needs of local labor markets and innovation systems – either extant or, notably in the case of Applied Sciences NYC, desired. They may be formally tied to local territorial structures through distinct funding and governance arrangements (think the City University of New York system as case in point). They may also be shaped by the opportunities opened by globally-networked cities as points of centrality, bringing together a critical mass of industrial, cultural, or professional expertise (here, many world-leading arts institutions based in major global cities can be seen as strongly of their urban setting despite operating with global spatial imaginaries). In this sense, we can approach the notion of being ‘OF’ the city through both material and institutional alignments arise as a direct outcome of a university’s urban location and through discursive linkages drawn between place and HEI.
  • Universities FOR the city operate in a manner that actively seeks to support cities, promote urbanization processes, or shape new urban ways of life. If universities OF the city remain tied to place as a result of various local dependencies and essential relations, the urbanity of universities FOR the city does not arise from a physical location with a metropolitan area, but through either strategic orientation or relational connections that integrate them into urban society. This might be through the adoption of distinct ‘Grand Challenges’ that look to coordinate university knowledge around urban societal challenges (sustainability, urban health etc.). It might be through developing a critical mass of urban knowledge production; perhaps some might disagree with the idea that the University of Loughborough is not located in an urban setting (either as a campus substantially removed from the town, or whether provincial market towns ought to be conceptualized as ‘urban’ in analytically meaningful terms), but it is a crucial nexus of urban knowledge production through the Global and World Cities research network. The university is operating FOR the city by analyzing the dynamics and interconnectivities of an increasingly urbanized world system. Alternatively, the Ivy League schools and Oxbridge don’t have to be located in the core of major urban decision-making centers to provide a steady stream of local governmental officials, policy wonks, or any number of city leaders (although it’s obviously debatable if this is, in fact, useful for cities and urban society in terms of enacting progressive, democratic social transformation…).

Being a university in, of, or for the city is not mutually exclusive in this reading. Urban universities may fit one or all of the above categorizations. They each offer an epistemological viewpoint to analyze universities as urban actors and a distinct strategic orientation and mode of operating for university administrators, faculty, students, and those involved (in one way or another) in the sphere of urban governance. Both the university and the city are heterogeneous and internally contradictory socio-spatial entities capable of adopting diverse engagement practices and strategic alignments. As UCL’s London Agenda moves forward, its commitment to the city it supports, and that supports it, unfurl along these broad axis, but in ways that are likely to be chaotic, unpredictable, but full of potential.

Jean-Paul Addie


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