The Dome has done the business

September 29, 2000

The Dome is a major asset to London and it offers great opportunities to higher education, says Rick Trainor

It is popular and easy to knock the Dome as financially extravagant and lowbrow. It calls for a different kind of vision to see it as part of a broader process of regeneration in which higher education can play a pivotal role.

The Dome occupies only a few acres of the Greenwich Peninsula (about two miles from historic Greenwich), equivalent in size to the area between Trafalgar Square and Euston Station. Thanks to the Dome, the redevelopment of the peninsula, once one of the most contaminated parts of the industrial world, has already resulted in new housing, a school, an award-winning shopping complex and the spectacular Jubilee Line extension, which makes the area highly accessible from central London as well as from nearby Canary Wharf. Further development is planned, whatever role the Dome plays after its troubled first year.

Mistakes there might have been, but the building and the renewal of the peninsula have created a new "sense of place". They are also crucial ingredients in the relayering of this part of London. This means more than just one more piece of redeveloped inner-city land - it is a critical part of a chain of renewal that links the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf to the new Royal Docks and the regeneration of the Woolwich area.

London is "moving East". Such grand designs need their icon buildings. The Dome may not be everyone's idea of imaginative architecture, but it is high-tech, modern and "green", and it is a massive physical statement of growth and change.

In place of the near hysteria surrounding it, there is an opportunity to rethink the Dome as a focal point for the development not merely of Greenwich, or even of southeast London, but of the broader Thames Gateway, which stretches from the City into Kent and Essex. Part of this equation must involve the location in Greenwich of a major university, with its three large campuses within a radius of four miles of the peninsula.

It is worth recalling that the content of the Dome is about futuristic leisure-oriented knowledge, concepts and ideas. Its next use will perhaps not be a million miles from this. Certainly it will be dependent on the knowledge economy and will look to a skilled, highly qualified workforce.

The role for Greenwich University and other educational providers here is obvious. But their role should be, and potentially is, much wider and more dynamic. A university such as Greenwich is both "local" and "global" and has a vital role to play in linking the two. That means linking inward investment and developments on the peninsula to the people, the organisations and businesses of the Thames Gateway. This is one of the most diverse sub-regions in the world: understanding that social and ethnic diversity is a vital part of harnessing its creativity.

In this vision, universities can become important partners in brokering a range of relationships, including the needs and aspirations of students, businesses and organisations, and in linking these to important "global" knowledge about science, technology and business. Also, traditional businesses and industries need to remain competitive through networks of improved organisations, technology and skilled personnel. Local communities need help in finding ways of celebrating and retaining their identities while simultaneously confronting change.

The Dome, for all its bad press, provides a focus for this challenge. Whether it becomes the site of a leisure attraction, a business innovation centre, a science park or a base for the "creative industries", there will be a role for higher education in fostering the broader development of the area. The Greenwich Peninsula provides an important illustration of the key role higher education can play in urban renaissance everywhere.

Rick Trainor is vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich.

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