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Kieran Lilley

Addressing 'town versus gown'

Kieran Lilley from architects Stride Treglown looks at the issues of integrating PBSA schemes into existing communities

Posted by Hannah Oakman | May 06, 2015 | Students

Students are a divisive demographic. I’ve been designing PBSA on urban sites for over 10 years and I can’t recall one public consultation where the principle of a PBSA has received support from the local community. I’ve had indifference, no comment, but generally the feedback has been negative.

My primary role at these consultations is to field questions on the merits of the building’s design and impact on the built environment. However, I am inevitably asked “Why students?” or “Why is it not on campus?” or “What about parking?” or “What we really need is more housing for locals.”

I went to Plymouth University and like many first years, I found a room in a shared house. The majority of houses had been converted into student digs and I can’t recall much feeling of ‘community.’ The studentification of the area had happened long before I arrived, and other than putting our bins out and using the local corner shop our integration with the local community was limited.

Plymouth, like many cities, has seen an increase in the importance of its universities, which has coincided with the demise of its historical employment base. The increased student numbers, combined with the universities greater financial clout, and support from the local authority has driven a wedge between the academic institution and the city or town they reside in - the classic town versus gown debate. Integrating students into an existing community is difficult, because there is little support from their local community.

That’s only half the story. The building type itself is integrally introverted with the focus on the quality of experience for the occupant, and engendering a sense of student community within the building. The needs of new students have become increasingly more demanding, with PBSA providers having effectively undertaken an arms race to make their ‘product’ more attractive than the competitor.

Notwithstanding the obvious need for connectivity, usually ranked above water, heat and shelter, recent schemes we have designed have included, gyms, cafes, music rooms, games rooms, cinemas and 24 hour manned receptions. All these are devices to encourage the students out of their flats and studios into a more communal environment.

We must recognise the importance of the in-house management team in a successful PBSA. Their role must extend beyond that of maintenance and rent collection, to provide pastoral care and organise events to really foster a sense of student community. Let’s not forget university often represents an individual’s first time living away from home, often in a different town or city and increasingly a different country.

All these provisions do little to break down the barriers between the PBSA and the local community they are placed in. With an emphasis placed on the students comfort and security by the PBSA provider, it’s easy to see why students are viewed with suspicion as they disappear into their ‘ivory towers’. It’s a shame when recent research suggests that students do have a desire to participate in the greater community.

Perhaps we need to revisit the building’s relationship with the community by opening up these facilities to the public.  Would a communal café or laundry break down these boundaries? Or is there not enough common ground to bridge the gap? Either way, it would take a brave university or private provider to take this first step.

 Kieran Lilley is Divisional Director at architects Stride Treglown. For more information visit www.stridetreglown.com

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