The University: A Web of Arteries Feeding a City with Ideas

Universities create the life force of many towns, cities and regional economies. They foster places for knowledge exchange both within the student and research communities, but also between these and the wider community and business. They provide the nourishment that the city needs to survive.

Plaza of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico
(Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla)
Stimulating ideas, creativity and knowledge exchange

Many studies such as the OECD’s programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education into the role of higher education in local and regional economies, show the importance of universities in terms of knowledge creation and exchange, underpinning innovation through research and contributing to the development of skills in the local economies. Universities can also play an important role in regenerating urban areas by creating a focus for activity.

The physical environment has an important role to play by creating the places where all this activity can occur.

There is much interest these days in university campuses within cities and how they relate to the urban world around them. For many, a campus suggests a contained group of buildings housing related activities. Yet in cities, in the physical realm is this either desirable or a reflection of reality?

Conceptually one may have an idea of what a university is or should be, but physically it is not always so easy to define. In some cases they are neatly arranged in a huddle with very clearly defined boundaries, in others they are not. In many large cities their buildings can be spread across the city and so the city becomes the university’s campus. This might be an ‘accident’ of history because the university has grown as several smaller institutions have merged, in other cases it is because to meet the spatial demands of an increasing student population in constrained urban areas has led to acquisition of space wherever it can be found.

There are a variety of settings in which the exchange of knowledge occurs within the university as well as outside with industry in terms of research and innovation, and the wider community in terms of training or facilitating public discourse. These range from teaching and learning settings, research and work settings to the social settings where informal interactions lead to knowledge exchange. This perhaps is the point. The issue might not be about defining the physical presence of a university as a single entity, but understanding how through its activities and relationships within the urban environment it can release the potential of the community at large.

Often for a university, creating places where knowledge exchange can happen is made difficult since it only has control over some of these places. So it has to find ways enabling the interactions between its own physical spaces and the community owned, public spaces. Where the institution is within a fairly self contained group of buildings, it raises questions about how far to let the public into what is essentially private space, that is the university’s own buildings, and how to integrate the space at its boundary with the public space. It has to find ways of influencing how the public spaces are used. Indeed universities are often looking for ways in which they can invite the public in to see what they do.

In the end, perhaps universities should worry less about creating just one place in a city, and look at how they can leverage the many places within cities that already exist. These places would then be linked by arteries carrying ideas, knowledge and creativity, feeding the living tissue of the city. That would be the UniverCity.

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