Prime developers of urban attractions that foster sustainable community life

March 30, 2007

Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus is notable not just for its design but also for its role in regeneration, as Matthew Baker reports

Back in the 1960s, T. Dan Smith, the maverick leader of Newcastle City Council, generated some incredibly ambitious regeneration plans to make Newcastle the "Brasilia of the North".

Using town-planning powers to buy a series of prime sites, he trumpeted the idea of making education the base of regeneration. In an era in which universities were generally inward looking and guilty of an anti-urban bias, the plan was by all accounts extraordinary.

So was Smith, who was later convicted of corruption charges. Nevertheless, his ideas are being reclaimed by a new generation of regeneration experts.

John Goddard, deputy vice-chancellor and professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University, thinks Smith was ahead of his time. He claims that Smith’s ideas were the forerunner of today’s estate development boom.

"Everyone is realising that estate development is vital to making cities attractive to highly mobile professional people. Universities are asking the question: ‘How do our estates extend to the public realm?’," he says.

There are generous grants available. Essex University’s new campus at Southend, which is due to be unveiled this year, has had some £25 million in grants. Its purpose-built or redeveloped buildings offer educational facilities as well as a business development centre, incubation units for start-ups, GP and dental surgeries, shops, student accommodation and a cultural hub. The redevelopment is intended to reverse a severe brain drain and retain the brightest graduates to
put Southend on the map.

The strength of these developments, many argue, is in their long-term vision. Where developers have often hidden behind the language of regeneration to make a quick buck, universities can build a sustainable future for their communities.

"Universities are in a unique position because we have long-term commitment to estates, we’re not developers," agrees Chris Jagger, director of estate development for Nottingham University. One such widely acclaimed project is the Nottingham Jubilee Campus, which opened in 1999. At a cost of £50 million, the site reclaimed eight hectares of redundant industrial land to house a number of university schools.

Hailed as one of the top five sustainable projects in the country, the campus design is seen as a milestone in green architecture. It includes roofs carpeted with alpine plants to maintain steady temperatures, and a series of lakes that provide cooling for the buildings in the summer.

The project is a past winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects Sustainability Award, beating the Eden Project. It is also, according to Jagger, an example of what universities should be doing, "pushing boundaries, demonstrating new technologies and creating innovation through knowledge transfer".

The same logic has informed projects such as the development of health and social care facilities at London South Bank University to train workers required for the growth of primary care trusts, and Oxford University’s Bregboke Science Park, which translates cutting-edge research into commercial opportunities.

"What we’ve tried to do, at the start of a very ambitious 15-year estates development programme," explains Peter Holiday, project director of South Bank’s strategic development plan, "is to engage with local community groups to tease out what everyone’s aspirations are."

Goddard says universities following such a strategy are borrowing from a model that began in medicine. "Medical schools have always integrated research, teaching and clinical practice. With businesses wanting to be in closer proximity to academia, we’re seeing a model where research, clinical practice and commercialisation sit cheek by jowl with sciences, engineering, arts and humanities, and other areas," he says.

But this relationship, he adds, runs the risk of tempting universities to stretch beyond their means. "And who bears the cost if it goes wrong? They can’t assume the Government will always bail them out."

Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, has similar views. In a city dubbed the "capital of cranes", he says the university made a contribution long before it became fashionable. "Five years ago, most of the cranes were public sector, now they’re private sector." But if you overstretch, he says, it’s simply bad business.

Some universities are likely to throw caution to the winds as estates development becomes more important. "Universities are no longer seen just as places where people teach and do research," Brown adds. "They have a huge impact on how we live. And agencies are more interested in partnership and working with us than ever before."

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