The future of the university city

Transformations in student housing, campus development and European city life will increasingly be focused on innovation and collaboration, sometimes at odds with an ever-changing political climate. What do universities as ‘learning hubs’ signify for the cities of the future, asks Arik Day

When Europe’s graduating class of 2020 step past their respective podiums to accept their degrees, they will have ideally been equipped with the innovative skills and thought processes fit for the Google era. To facilitate that, universities are increasingly hedging their bets on online courses and tools, flexible and collaborative spaces, and innovative and interdisciplinary areas of study. At the same time, higher education institutions battle to attract the most promising young international minds in the hopes of strengthening their local and national economies.

In Europe, the omen of increasingly closed borders is juxtaposed by increasingly ‘open’ university campuses and cities contending to be the next ‘learning hub’. Driven by the demands of a diversifying knowledge-based and globalized economy, these hubs are determined by the standards not only of the universities themselves, but also through an institution’s collaborations with cities and local businesses. This is a notably 21st-century phenomenon, where the university city necessitates openness, collaboration and partnership as a platform for innovation and change.

New ways of living in temporary floating structure © Laurent de Carniere

New ways of living in temporary floating structure © Laurent de Carniere

Student housing: the new frontier in development

Student housing is currently going through dynamic shifts in design and functionality. Where once a student dormitory merely required a bed, adequate kitchen facilities and (in recent years) a reliable WiFi connection, student housing today is being refashioned around concepts of ‘community’ which blend living, leisure, socializing and studying functions. Students are increasingly selective in their housing choices, and universities and developers alike have capitalized on this with contemporary design, strong brands and forward thinking uses of space. This reimagining of the traditionally compartmentalized lifestyle of a 21st-century student is built around a collaborative model intended to nurture entrepreneurial spirit and to build lasting social and professional networks.

At the University of Utah in the United States, the institution’s newest student residence has recently been completed as part of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute. Students from all academic disciplines are encouraged to ‘live, create and launch’ their ideas while studying at the campus, along with a residential community of 400 other student entrepreneurs and innovators. The modern, open concept building includes a 20,000 square-foot creative space (over 1,800 square metres) for students to host and attend events, build prototypes, compete in competitions and simply hang out.

In Europe, a student housing shortage has engendered similar approaches to student living, many of which are being developed by private institutions. In Copenhagen, for instance, student housing platform UrbanRigger offers unique modular living spaces that float in the city’s harbour. The property is fully carbon-neutral and features a courtyard, a kayak landing point, a swimming area and a barbeque space, all of which support social interaction.

While these luxury properties may appear ostentatious in comparison to the frugality of the past, the amenities and social interactions that they foster are increasingly seen as essential to students’ well-being and study experience, particularly to those who come from abroad.

From the campus to the cloud (and back)

Student housing is not the only part of university life undergoing transformation. The design-based approach utilized in new student housing developments has also been applied to changing campus structures. Universities are increasingly shifting gear toward interdisciplinary and independent study programmes, as well as digital and open-source learning. At the same time, university campuses are being redeveloped, introducing a plethora of modern built forms and multifunctional facilities. Spaces are increasingly flexible, open and active, enhancing the potential for users to socialize, meet and work together.

Thus, the purpose of the university campus has changed: it now functions less as a ‘learning factory’ and more as a breeding ground for talent and innovation. More than ever, the university experience is all-encompassing, with campuses operating more and more like autonomous cities. Businesses are increasingly hosting events and even relocating to these new learning hubs to access an innovative and tech-savvy young workforce. In return, the universities prosper from new facilities and expanded external networks, with each campus functioning as a platform for economic partnership. As universities also need to appeal to a wide range of prospective students, on-site innovation labs and think tanks offer unique work experience and applicable fieldwork opportunities in tandem with study programmes.

Just outside Utrecht, the Netherlands, the 300-hectare (re)development of the Science Park personifies this shift in campus planning. In addition to housing two universities and 2,500 student beds, more than 80 organizations and businesses operating in the sectors of sustainability, life sciences and health, and applied gaming economics have relocated to the area. The innovation hub UtrechtInc also houses 20 start-up organizations, and a tram line with direct access to the city centre is currently under construction.

Utrecht’s Science Park suggests a trend in which environmental design goes hand-in-hand with flexible learning strategies. This experience creates a vibrant and fully-activated campus community, which in turn builds entrepreneurial and networking skills necessary for tomorrow’s urban professional.

Utrecht science park rooftop garden © Utrecht Toolkit

Utrecht science park rooftop garden © Utrecht Toolkit

 “The campus of the future is a city”

Alexandra Den Heijer, a lecturer at TU Delft, was first to propose that the future of the university campus is rooted within the spatiality of its host city. The city itself offers round-the-clock learning opportunities, and via meaningful partnership with local businesses and universities, can offer a fully-immersive learning experience.

Cities must, therefore, increasingly ‘roll out the red carpet’ to newcomers and international talent to boost the local economy. Universities can be a city’s economic growth engine, attracting knowledge workers and in turn businesses and visitors. This requires a robust vision and strong administration from universities and municipalities, as well as meaningful investments in campus and city life. In fostering a stimulating built environment, local culture and socio-economic incentives, it goes without saying that investing in attracting international students and entrepreneurs can benefit even the smallest of cities.

Some municipalities maintain a distinct advantage in attracting a wide range of students, either through being renowned global metropoles such as London and Paris or by offering a defined and marketable identity such as Barcelona or Amsterdam. Smaller municipalities across Europe have also entered the game in partnership with local institutions. In all cases, location and connectivity, the cost of living and tuition and access to entry-level jobs are major components in fashioning an ideal university city. This last point is especially important in facilitating sustainability: many cities lose talented students after graduation to their higher-tier or better-connected counterparts. This competition between urban regions results in tangible winners and losers within nations and across Europe.

Nevertheless, cities like Glasgow, Rotterdam and Lisbon have introduced comprehensive urban strategies to promote their respective university experiences abroad, and have invested in creating an ideal business and urban environment to spark innovation and entrepreneurship in students and graduates alike. In Denmark, the city of Aalborg aims to maintain an ambitious 20% of its population as students, with plans to redevelop a major ‘axis’ of the aging industrial city into a glowing centre of knowledge and culture. The two campuses of Aalborg University will function as its main hubs.

The Collective Old Oak, London © WCEC Architects

The Collective Old Oak, London © WCEC Architects

Co-living hubs: building futures together

A 2009 study suggested that the ‘stay rate’, or percentage of international students staying on in European nations after graduation, exceeded 20%. However, some countries and local governments still have a long way to go in removing administrative red tape, investing in diverse sectors and languages and offering comprehensive career support to potential new knowledge workers. In addition, affordable and flexible living/working space remains of the utmost importance.

While co-working spaces are a well-established response to this need, co-living schemes are becoming increasingly more significant. TalentGarden, headquarted in Milan, offers coworking campuses with over 1,300 members in 17 locations across Europe. Talent is selected directly by the community and is supported by large firms such as IBM as well as 85,000 other corporate partners. Membership of TalentGarden secures access to every campus in order to live, work and grow in a creatively designed space, with access to workshops, meet-ups and master classes with sponsors.

Similarly – but on a much smaller scale – the Je m’appelle Company is a co-habited house on a tiny side street in Amsterdam, which houses 25 creatives under one roof. Inspired by one graduate’s experience studying abroad in San Francisco, USA, the goal of Je m’appelle is to create a ‘village within a city’ where young minds can cross-pollinate and share ideas while also sharing costs.

While co-habiting with others likely results in some unavoidable tensions, it is clear that these co-living and co-working hubs continue to inspire innovation and address the needs of students-turned-entrepreneurs even outside of a university setting. Since they function not only as hubs but also as incubators for future innovation, cities and universities alike should support these ventures in hopes that their benefits will radiate out into other sectors of society.

Political divides, intellectual opportunities

In spite of a generally positive outlook for the collaborative approach to higher education, the fluctuating political zeitgeist of our time remains a looming threat to innovation and internationalization. According to The Economist, the distinction between left- and right-wing indicators is becoming blurred and less relevant, instead being supplanted by an ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politic. While this ideological stalemate between embracing change versus ‘conserving what’s ours’ is not a new phenomenon, it has been exacerbated in the European political realm as of late. The recent Brexit vote, the ongoing refugee crisis and contentious elections in Europe and the United States mean the potential to build bridges between states is increasingly at risk of being replaced by border walls.

This political rift leaves urban regions torn between contrary governmental policies. As potential hubs of globalized innovation, knowledge and learning, the impetus to push back against isolationism – particularly among urban intellectuals and internationals – is growing.

The city of Vienna is an example of one such place at the whim of a contentious political climate. Recently, Vienna has been cast into the limelight as a cultural powerhouse, and a hub of tolerance and chic coffee houses, with a high quality of life. Yet recent Austrian elections proved that a Eurosceptic and anti-immigration far-right party can still win the vote by a significant margin. The future of the city’s competitiveness in the knowledge economy therefore hangs precariously in the balance as resurgent isolationist politics come to the fore.

The United Kingdom’s recent vote to leave the European Union further reveals this deepening rift, with universities – especially those with far-reaching global influence – being caught in the crossfire. Since 75% of British voters under the age of 24 voted against Brexit, campuses across the UK emerged as defined spaces of discontent. Institutions such as Cambridge spoke outwardly against the result, noting that a large majority of its most valuable students and staff originally hail from outside the UK. The vote could therefore have drastic implications for attracting European talent to the UK in the post-Brexit era, and vice versa. While the depreciating pound suggests the potential for cheaper housing and tuition costs, complications both in the UK and continental Europe paint an uncertain picture of the future.

Amidst the murky waters of Europe’s political seas, universities and cities will nevertheless remain important loci of learning, knowledge and innovation. With over 860 universities on the continent alone, a commitment to community and cross-pollination cannot be avoided at any level, whether it is facilitated in student housing and workspaces or at the scale of the campus, city or nation.

The EU’s Europe 2020 initiative, which aims for a ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive’ future economy sets these priorities within reach of current and future generations. In supporting cities and universities as learning hubs, we also support lifelong connections, unforgettable experiences and symbiotic exchange – which can only have positive effects on culture, politics and the economy. In effect, this establishes our urban regions and universities as empowering sites of major global change.

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