How do you create a community without a campus?

Caroline Paradise, head of design research at Atkins, discusses how more dispersed institutions can build a sense of community.

Three of the London based universities, including Imperial College and UCL, are investing in new campus sites outside the city centre. Other universities in the UK, like Northampton, are making a conscious decision to consolidate their estate. They’re doing this not just to create efficiencies, but to create a single campus that brings together all of their students in one place. This has got me thinking: how do universities foster a sense of community when they don’t have a clearly defined campus?  

Some people might argue that there are students who choose a university solely based on quality of education (see article here from AUDE 2013). They think students aren’t necessarily interested in being part of a community, and are just there to soak up as much knowledge as they can. Others argue that learning communities have moved online, and the next generation is just as happy digesting knowledge through a virtual learning environment or MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).

But with students now paying up to £9k a year in tuition fees, I believe most want the full university experience. They want the total package where they feel part of a community that exists beyond the classroom, built on human interaction and a sense of belonging, and that they will be a part of their entire lives. This is particularly evident for undergraduates where the university often becomes their ‘home away from home’.

In many cases, students actually like the smaller, more intimate communities that form around a shared interest – most commonly, around their Faculty, Department or course. Knowing that everyone in their building is taking the same course gives them a shared purpose with their peers, and something to talk about if they cross paths on the stairs. This has come across as part of our Post Occupancy Evaluation study at Northumbria University where students really value being able to identify with City Campus East as their ‘home’ and that they can sit down in any one of the variety of learning spaces and know they could be sitting next to a future colleague.

Northumbria University, while not as dispersed as some universities, does have a few autonomous campuses across the city, each with its own identity and community. When we worked with the University on the development of City Campus East,one of the main design drivers was ensuring that the different components of the University estate have a strong connection to one another, as well as providing a strong visual identity for the new campus.




The flow of people on foot and by bike from the main campus to City Campus East was an area which our colleagues in Atkins’ intelligent spaces team analysed in detail through pedestrian flow modelling. 

Having a university in the middle of our biggest cities poses additional challenges. Universities like Glasgow have been embedded in the fabric of their cities for hundreds of years, and the development of the university estates is directly connected with the growth and development of the city. The University of Glasgow’s global vision for 2020 sets out its commitment to a continual dialogue with the city so that they maintain a positive relationship between their students and the wider community. They want their students to feel as much part of the academic community as they do a part of a more global community, encouraging students to experience the city as a citizen as much as a student.  Retaining this kind of connection to the university as well as the city is challenging, but can offer an incredible and unforgettable experience when done right, particularly for foreign students.  

So outside of faculty buildings and transport links, what steps can universities take to encourage communities? First it’s about putting in place the supports you need to provide the foundation for a community. These could include facilities to encourage the development of friendships outside the lecture theatre or seminar room, and, maybe for more mature students, potentially to support their families.  A good example of where this is happening is the development of Edinburgh University’s Easter Bush Campus.

Creating a sense of community also relies on creating a sense of common purpose. Encouraging students to get involved in volunteer groups is one way to bring students together. By getting students involved in, and giving back to, the community, you create not only a sense of shared purpose but a closer link to students’ shared surroundings. Encouraging entrepreneurship and links with local businesses is another good way of doing this. Oxford University, for example, encourages students to volunteer and to collaborate with local businesses, ultimately becoming ‘active citizens in their local community and beyond’.



But really it’s about how the university is perceived, both by students and the wider community. You could go so far as to say the first step to creating a university community is to create a ‘brand’ – a strong and unique identity for the university that people buy into and will pay premium prices to be a part of.  This is seen most vividly in the USA with universities like Harvard creating a brand that even those outside the university want to be associated with.

 For the universities building new, combined campuses, it’s a fresh start, and an opportunity to consciously brand the campus as a single, cohesive community that students identify with and want to belong to. For the universities that have facilities spread across the city, it’s about finding a way to connect these elements together with a common identity – whether it’s through transport or building aesthetics or common purpose – so that they build a community that is the connection across their disperse campuses. 

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