How university estates can serve the communities that house them

As the country prepares for the government’s "levelling up" Budget next month, Jeremy Hinds explores the opportunities for university estates to contribute to community wellbeing

The university sector is currently undergoing many changes.

Much of this change is in the form of new investment, creating new buildings to meet the demands of new and emerging study areas, as well as a desire to improve and upgrade ageing stock.

The opportunity for such investment has come at the same time as universities are rethinking how they should engage with the towns and wider environments of which they form a part. This is especially true of universities that have a base in or close to town and city centres, and are part of the urban environment, where changes to planning legislation last year place more onus on the role that their new buildings play in promoting healthy communities, and bring possible risks for those that fail to make a positive contribution.

Given the continued the growing importance of sustainability and wellbeing in both the public consciousness and the legislative agenda, it is likely that this onus is only going to intensify. While development proposals cannot (yet) be refused on the basis that they haven’t met the requirements of promoting wellbeing under planning legislation, it is likely to only be a matter of time until they can.

In the interim, universities face possible reputational risks if they are perceived to be behind the curve in positively contributing to the wellbeing of their surrounding communities, and hazarding losing potential students to their competitor institutions that are.

A sense of place

Many are already acting. Universities such as Central Lancashire, Leicester, Portsmouth, Glasgow, as well as those in London and Manchester, are all currently engaged in repositioning their buildings and creating new places to enhance student experiences, as well as create new academic spaces. The urge to create a sense of place is leading to a more extensive integration of the universities with their towns. Some universities – notably Northampton – have gone further still, and have relocated entirely from being outside of the town to being an integral part of it.

All this makes sense. Universities have considerable populations, often in the tens of thousands, with the larger universities rivalling the population of many market towns. In Manchester, the total student population exceeds 100,000, greater than many of the individual towns that make up the Greater Manchester metropolitan area.

It follows that with large populations, both the towns and their universities can benefit from shared spaces, collective use of buildings, and integration of facilities. Towns can benefit from the student resident population with a demographic that adds considerably to their attraction, encouraging investment in the evening and night time economies, as well as providing impetus for investment in cafes and informal places to gather and meet, as urban planners become increasingly alert to the need to extend the activities of their commercial centres beyond the end of conventional working hours.

With questions constantly raised about the role of the high street in the era of online retailing, new uses that encourage people to come into town centres are being sought, tried and tested. This is particularly crucial for many of the UK’s regional towns and cities in need of economic regeneration, where local authorities have been weathering cuts to their funding from central government over the past decade and are therefore looking at alternative sources and approaches to improve their environment.

For locations in the Midlands and the North this is set to be particularly relevant as, according to analysis by the Local Government Association, they are likely to be disproportionally affected if revisions to budgets under the Government’s “Fair Funding Review” proceed, but also because of current political focus on the North, and to a large extent also on the Midlands.

The former is not just a response from the 2019 general election, but a legacy of the debate about Northern Powerhouse and an increasingly wide recognition that the economy needs to be rebalanced. Universities have a leading role to play in the national debate in upskilling the workforce, providing the means for new ideas, new technology and for new businesses to emerge. Universities contain the ingredients to enable start-ups, which can flow from a natural path of undergraduate to postgraduate roles via research, as well as being embedded in university departments.

Urban integration

Investment in research and development is being complemented by investment in business-friendly facilities. Leading examples include the proposed business school at the University of Warwick, and the recently completed expansion and remodelling of the business school at the University of Manchester. At Manchester, the business school is part of a remodelled building that also houses the Crowne Plaza Hotel, designed primarily to cater for the needs of travelling business people, as well as people staying on residential aspects of the courses.

The move towards integrating universities within the urban fabric is also a central theme to the redevelopment of the University of Salford. Its masterplan envisages new spaces to welcome the wider public into the university grounds, to use and enjoy its facilities. The development programme has been undertaken with extensive consultation with Salford City Council, and the result is a new civic and cultural gateway, including new pedestrian friendly spaces to enhance general wellbeing.

The collaboration between the university and the council is a practical demonstration of the effect of the Local Government Act (2000), which granted powers to local planning authorities to consider how to promote wellbeing in their areas, as well as the effects of planning legislation that was amended in July 2019 to ensure that planning and development processes make a positive contribution to promoting healthy communities. Included in the 2019 Town Planning Guidance is the recognition that the design and use of the built and natural environments, including incorporating green infrastructure, are major determinants of health and wellbeing. In an urban context, “green infrastructure” can be pedestrian friendly places, with large elements of planting and traffic-free spaces.

Many universities are leading the way on this agenda: so-called grey spaces are being remodelled into new green spaces that not only contribute environmental benefits, but to personal development goals under various wellbeing headings. The impetus to create green, pedestrian friendly and attractive public spaces is underpinned in national legislation as well as being driven by the desire of universities themselves to make better use of their physical assets. A good example of such proposals is the footbridge at Northampton University’s Waterside Campus, shortlisted for the 2019 AJ Architectural Award.

Joined-up thinking

The increasingly joined-up agenda between universities, local government and local businesses has – perhaps unintended – consequences for those universities that do not, or are not, embracing the agenda. As well as students being less attracted to them as places for higher education, another negative effect is the likelihood that institutions will be excluded from playing a role in shaping the way in which the communities around them evolve.

This could result in less engagement with the wider political agenda about economic restructuring, in turn leading to decreased support from government sources of finance and disinvestment from local businesses. The challenge to all universities is to prevent such a cycle of disinvestment from occurring as history suggests that once started, it becomes difficult to redress.

On the plus side, however, most local authorities and universities have reached a similar point in their understanding of how the latter can make significant contributions to the local economy and the wider urban fabric, and in so doing, how the investment in new physical assets can make meaningful contributions to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. Given the scale of investment on offer, the opportunity to create long-lasting new places and new environments is unique.

 

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