Building for Buzz on university campuses: it’s a numbers game

Are plans to build “living campuses”, campuses that buzz with people and ideas, by increasing the quantity of student accommodation offered on campuses realistic? In this blog, I argue that much bolder approaches are needed; if student accommodation is the answer, housing for thousands, rather than hundreds, of students needs built on campus.

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Fig 1. Modernism in a park – the post-war definition of a good university campus today looks isolate. This photo is from the University of East Anglia (UEA), outside Norwich. 

The Quiet Campus

At a workshop in the Swedish city of Luleå, a dilemma facing many university campus developers was put on the table. Luleå’s successful university of technology was built outside the city centre, when building university campuses on green field sites was the trend. Indeed, in the second half of the last century, building Arcadian campuses where Modernist lecture halls and labs peaked out from meadows or forest was practically obligatory. Many universities that had had downtown locations, such as Amsterdam’s Free University, even chose to relocate to more spacious sites beyond the city.

As our love affair with urbanism has blossomed – and the role of dense, diverse and lively cities in knowledge and wealth creation has become apparent – many of these so-called “campus universities” have begun to question their idyllic but isolated locations.

Such campuses tend to become lifeless after five in the afternoon – as well as for several months a year during the long university vacations. They lack the “buzz” that researchers have told us is essential to creating and sharing ideas.

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Fig 2. The campus of Luleå’s Technical University is located about two kilometres from the city of Luleå.

The solution being put forward is to build more student accommodation on campus. Students are lively, creative and bright, surely having more of them on campus 24/7 will create that elusive buzz?

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Fig 3. Plans for building student accommodation on Luleå’s campus are underway. Will enough student accommodation be built to create that elusive buzz? 

Buzz and Building in Proportion

The answer might be more complicated than we’d like. The American urbanist Jane Jacobs reminds us that the creation of lively neighbourhoods is a science and that successful neighbourhoods have consistent characteristics. In particular she argues that day and night time populations in a lively area need to be proportional to each other. Having a few hundred homes scattered through a business neighbourhood made for many thousands of workers will not change the dynamic of that neighbourhood. Such neighbourhoods lack the consistency in customer base that makes it worthwhile for cafes or cultural facilities to open up (without subsidy, at least).

The same is true of campus universities. These are workspaces designed for thousands. A few hundred units of student accommodation will have little effect – and will, in fact, make students feel isolated, with the potential to create a whole new range of problems for universities.

An Informed Response to the Living campus

Two further possibilities were described at the Luleå workshop.

First, Danish architect Helle Juul from Juul Frost, suggested building more student accommodation in the city, rather than the campus. This makes sense; the students of the university will add to city life, increasing the customer base for existing city facilities such as pubs and even university-linked science centres. The city will generate buzz and this up-beat atmosphere will diffuse out to the campus when students and researchers travel out there over the day.

Second, Swedish architect Rickard Stark from Okidoki discussed a project his company is leading in Linköping (central Sweden). Here the local authority has chosen to build “city” around a green field campus. Specifically, they are building a diverse (gorgeous-looking) residential neighbourhood on the edge of the university campus so as to give the feeling of a town to the area. It seems promising to introduce accommodation for families and workers on to campus, alongside increasing student accommodation. Again though, will the numbers ever be sufficient to balance-out the daytime population?

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Fig 4. Vallastaden, a new area being built beside the campus of Linking University.

A Bold Answer to the Outlier Challenge

The post-war period has left us with a range of awkward, mono-cultural areas orbiting around our cities, from social housing estates to science parks, out-of-town shopping malls to universities. Each of these areas has taken a vital resource – liveliness, diversity, buzz, call it what you will – from our cities, leaving the city core almost as vulnerable as its edges.

Small solutions, such as a few hundred units of accommodation, I suggest, will be no solution at all. Solutions need a much stronger flavour and each solution needs tailored to its particular environment.

If student accommodation is to be the answer to lifeless university campuses, then we must build thousands, rather than hundreds, of units of accommodation on campus – and this is what successful campus universities like York University in the UK do. Ideally, we need to make sure this is mixed with other types of housing so that the campus is lively year-round. And note here that great public transport to the city is necessary, if this rejuvenated campus is to add to city life, rather than detract from it.

If this level of commitment is not possible, then it seems better to build student accommodation in the city where, at least, the infrastructure for creating buzz already exists. What this means for the university campus left on the periphery is open for further discussion – a tighter-built, more efficient workspace connected to the city by super-efficient public transport, or a move back to the city too?

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