In urban development, universities can be better neighbours

Higher education institutions should listen to those who are less powerful when planning expansion, says Clare Melhuish

April 2, 2016
University buildings in London

In the University College London Urban Laboratory, we promote knowledge and new ideas about urbanism; but we also maintain that universities can do this by example through their own estates strategies and spatial development plans. Cities globally face grand societal challenges that often seem intractable, but universities have access to networks of knowledge, power and finance that they should be able to pull together to develop models of inclusive urban development, offering access to space and amenities that encourage urban mixing and generate opportunities for a wide cross section of society, not only academics and students. We see universities as catalysts for cosmopolitan urban regeneration which challenges planning norms and patterns of elite enclave development, and genuinely makes a contribution to resolving entrenched social problems linked to lack of opportunity.

Of course, there is a body of opinion that would maintain that universities’ primary role is to deliver higher education and routes into gainful employment for their increasingly high fee-paying students, and question why they should take on the job of regenerating cities. Many universities have already come up with their own answers to that. The key drivers for university development are lack of space, competition with other institutions to attract and retain the best staff and students, and the need to generate diverse additional income streams, especially through research translation and professional training opportunities. Effective spatial development, which generates a healthy relationship with surrounding urban areas and communities, and other urban agents (city councils, local enterprise partnerships, third sector groups, and regional development agencies), is increasingly recognised by higher education institutions as fundamental to achieving all these goals.

Historian Thomas Bender has compared urban universities to immigrant neighbourhoods in US cities, where residents live both in both local place and in a trans-local, diasporic culture at the same time – grounded, while globally connected. From this perspective, universities need to develop a long-term view of how they nurture and evolve those everyday interactions, as embedded urban actors with a commitment to increasing the positive social impacts of their property assets. This requires effective mechanisms and communication both within and beyond the institution, significantly expanding on the statutory minimum for planning consultation, but this is often the most intractable part of the problem.

In the US, where universities have been proactive in urban renewal since the 1960s (not always successfully), and have widely embraced the role of “anchor institution” as part of their civic mission, both New York University and Columbia University are actively engaged in substantial spatial development plans, shored up by negotiated deals with their urban neighbours that have been years in the making. NYU, which wants to reshape its Washington Square campus as a central symbolic site for its identity as a “global network university”, has, through “hundreds” of meetings with local stakeholders, faculty and students, agreed 7 per cent community use of its site, with a further option for the city to build a school. It also set up an internal working group made up of faculty and management to share information and solicit feedback while “reimagining the university’s mechanisms for governance”.

Likewise, Columbia acknowledged the problems of an internal schism between academic and physical planning of its Manhattanville site, located in West Harlem, and brought them together in a joint planning task force. This group, co-chaired by academics Peter Marcuse (urban planning) and Sharyn O’Halloran (political economics and international and public affairs), however, highlighted the lack of information on the role of community or non-university uses of the site, and provision of affordable housing; issues that aroused intense local opposition and eventually led to the agreement of a $125 million (£87 million) community benefits package spread over 25 years.

The Columbia project has underlined issues of racialised gentrification and displacement through university expansion and land value uplift that are equally potent in the UK. UCL Urban Laboratory’s case studies on Durham University’s Stockton campus and Newcastle University at Science City demonstrate that UK academics undoubtedly have an appetite for participatory methods of engagement with the hopes and aspirations of different groups of urban neighbours, and projects for spatial co-production, but that problems with internal structures and mechanisms for visioning and communication need to be resolved. It is not clear whose job it should be to oversee and coordinate, and how resources should be allocated to these processes. In addition, rather than lecturing communities about benefits, as Columbia was perceived to do, universities need to work out how to involve them in discussions at an early stage and retain their input over time, in order to co-produce a vision for mutually beneficial development, and build into the economic model from the start an evaluation of those benefits for the very people threatened by displacement.

Well-established university-community forums, combined with long-term university engagement with planning authorities, and an effective interactive website, as modelled in the North West Cambridge development by the University of Cambridge, set a preliminary example of how to build local people and local planners into these conversations and draw on their expertise and local knowledge to shape universities’ own visions of their urban identity and relationships with their host cities. In a recent public seminar on this topic hosted by the Urban Laboratory, it was also suggested, however, that universities should be investing in their own research into how viability studies for spatial development might be reworked to include an evaluation of social benefit and to assess how land value uplift might be used up front to fund regeneration effects such as social enterprise.

Finally – and considering architect Sir Peter Shepheard’s description of the plan of a university as “a mechanism for enabling things to happen, for the enhancement of life”, like that of a city – universities need to recognise the value of appointing good quality masterplanners and architects with design expertise, but also experience in stakeholder engagement, and a willingness to load the fee on the side of working with the client to develop the brief, programme and narrative. This was the case with Newcastle’s urban sciences building, following the university’s decision to take a design competition route. Cambridge also opted for procurement on its North West project via a Royal Institute of British Architects competition, consolidated in a rigorous design review process conducted by a panel representing a cross section of internal and external interests. For the city council, this has represented a great opportunity to raise the bar on quality for other developers across other sites, setting up the university development as an exemplary model.

Certainly, universities seem to retain the advantage of being perceived by the public as relatively trustworthy, with long-term interests to sustain, compared with the average cut-and-run developer. But that is a reputation that they could exponentially enhance by developing more effective strategies for embracing and acting on the views of their more vulnerable urban neighbours.

Clare Melhuish is senior research associate and co-director at the University College London Urban Laboratory. Click here for more information on the laboratory's case studies and public seminar on university-led urban regeneration.

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