Fragile Ideas III: the medium-sized city and building for beyond average

Just because you are in the middle, you don’t have to be average. This is the conclusion I drew after a handful of days spent at the Urban Universities conference hosted by The Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment at the University of Northampton this July. The conference focused on the partnerships being established between universities and cities, especially cities of a small to medium size. As well as looking at the diverse structures of these partnerships, their consequences for city and university built environment planning were also discussed. Being based, rather smugly, in a capital city, I hesitated about what I would learn from the event. Surely it’s us in our million-inhabits-plus, multi-university cities that are setting the pace and smaller cities that are following after? I have been set straight.

The City of Northampton kicked the event off introducing its “Northampton Alive” strategy, in which the university is a key player. The short video above provides an overview of the regeneration strategy.

As part of this (central government co-funded) project over the coming few years the University of Northampton, just ten years old, will relocate on to a single campus site closer to the centre of town. The relocation is about much more than shiny, new buildings; the university and city are seizing upon this as an opportunity to challenge their interwoven fates as “a middling English town with a middling performance university”.

The Waterside Campus at Northampton University

The ideas are radical – and co-developed with talented UK architects Moses Cameron Williams.  The new campus will be based around a series of hubs, rather than department buildings. There will be a learning hub, a creative hub, a research and enterprise hub and an energy hub. Departments will be able to book places in these hubs but will have no permanent “home”. The campus will be on a far smaller site than occupied today, requiring an active approach to space management that includes timetabling lectures from eight in the morning to eight in the evening. As the city will play a vital part in the university’s evolution, a backbone public access route between the university and city is being constructed to symbolise this tighter relationship. Around the university, office spaces will be built and the local railway station, connecting Northampton to London and Birmingham, has had an attractive facelift. This video gives an overview of the planned campus developments:

And what does it mean?

Reflecting on this conference afterwards, what stays with me is that it wasn’t only Northampton moving forward with a powerful agenda for knowledge-based growth. Reading, Chelmsford, Milton Keynes, Huddersfield and a range of other “middling” cities were at the conference outlining equally bold plans. None of these plans were faded copies of what capital cities or large regional cities are doing; each city had taken a distinctive and vibrant approach to strengthening its own potentials.

Rediscovering the civic university

A common concept underpinning this diverse work is the idea of the “civic university” – reintroduced and redeveloped by John Goddard at Newcastle University. A civic university is one that is deeply committed to its local community and understands that its future and the future of the city in which it is located are interrelated. Vitally, this is about much more than economic development and links with industry; it’s about working across the city, with schools and hospitals, with community groups and local authorities, to ensure that research and research-based educations make deep contributions to local life.

Many universities in the UK and USA were established by their cities. The pamphlet below from Sheffield in the UK was issued in 1904 to support a public subscription campaign for the university. Local workers from the factories of the city raised funding for the expansion of the university in the belief that it would make the city a place in which all could prosper. Humbling – and a sharp reminder of how far we at universities have drifted from our local communities.

Sheffield: a university grown through public subscription

Sheffield: growing a university through public subscription and local commitment

Universities like Northampton, Reading, Huddersfield (and the larger cities of Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester) are trying to rediscover this link with their cities and have reinvested in creating local value. A physical expression of this trend is the establishment of “urban rooms” at these universities where city makers and academics can come together to create joint solutions to their shared challenges.

Will it work?

A comment over coffee convinced me that these middling cities are on to something. A lecturer who had been at a prestigious London university related her delight at moving out of the crowded and impossibly expensive capital to a university in the north. As a junior academic in London she wasted hours a day commuting and, even then, couldn’t afford a good home. She felt it was hard for her research to have impact in the ever-shifting, enormous capital. In her new hometown, she walks to work from home and is already able to link her research to developments in the city. I was envious. It’s quite possible that these middling cities with their big ideas will be able to pick-off talented students and researchers who can no longer afford (or desire) London.

The knowledge society requires that we all get smarter, that we can all access world-class ideas and refresh our skills through out our life times. This means that we need excellent knowledge resources everywhere. It’s what happens in cities like Northampton that will decide the future of our knowledge nations, equally as much as what happens in London, New York. Stockholm or Paris.

Fragile Ideas: this is the third in a series of blogs looking at the challenges different university cities face in planning for their futures. The first (medieval university cities) and second (post-industrial university cities) blogs in this series can also be accessed.

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