Universities as agents of inclusive urbanisation

By Clare Melhuish, on 7 October 2015

The Urban Lab + London Symposium on Global Urban Higher Education (hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory, Sept 16th-17th), provided a valuable forum for discussion not only of ‘the challenges and potentials of internationalisation’, but also around a redefinition of the idea of a university as itself an agent of equitable urbanisation.

Quite apart from the fundamental problems of linguistic difference and expectation of political neutrality in international fieldwork (which also set hard and fast parameters around particular research areas and bodies of scholarship), universities have to confront questions around their role in tackling global urban issues, notably urban inclusion. As Caren Levy (UCL) pointed out, social and spatial inequality in cities is an international phenomenon, often exacerbated by the growth of the development industry and the promotion of particular models of planning. Planning itself, as well as planning education, operates under a cloak of neutrality, but is usually instrumental to powerful interests.

However universities themselves figure among those powerful interests that planning serves, and they also form alliances with other parties that increasingly view university partnerships as beneficial to the promotion of their own objectives. While Jane Jacobs (Yale-NUS) proposed that the Yale-NUS campus initiative in Singapore is ‘not an export model of higher education’, but rather a ‘reputational investment’ intended to further Singapore’s own developing programme of education aimed at producing a ‘new kind of citizen subject’ to transform the country, many universities from the global north stand accused of pursuing institutional and physical international expansion plans which simply perpetuate the colonising traditions and inequalities of the past. As Jenny Robinson (UCL) noted, urban studies teaching is being transformed by the aspiration to ‘build knowledge from many different contexts’, and so too universities as institutions have a responsibility to commit to partnerships and develop an analytics of power and urban politics which addresses fundamental issues.

If then ‘cities are not all right’ (Krzysztof Nawratek, cited several times during the proceedings), universities should be demonstrating through their own institutional development and relationships with partners and planning systems how they can actively promote equitable and sustainable urbanisation. But to date, suggested Jean-Paul Addie (UCL), critical urbanism has not sufficiently shaped university-urban relationships. Furthermore, current definitions of ‘the urban’ do not adequately reflect the reality of most urban lives, grounded in suburban environments, and need to be expanded. Addie’s proposal for insititutions to be held to account more widely in terms of their (sub-)urban responsibilities was taken one step further by Alex Schafran (Leeds). He argued that universities framed as ‘urban academies’ should be made formally and legally responsible for public participation, debate and dissemination of information on urban issues, such as housing, to address the sheer incapacity of states to engage in long-term planning. Universities he said need to fill that gap, explicitly engaging with the political dimensions of urbanisation.

Teaching and research provide natural arenas in which to explore and forward such ideas in an international sphere, alongside public engagement strategies aimed at disseminating knowledge and building capacity more widely. But universities can also promote that knowledge through their estates strategies and spatial development plans, in order to demonstrate and disseminate models of responsible engagement with planning systems, and address the perpetuation of inequalities through the urban environment itself. Urban inclusion involves understanding specific issues and conditions which are similar across continents – for example, privatisation of public space and access to urban transport, housing, and social infrastructure. Fear of displacement resulting from place-marketing and speculation in land values is a common concern among populations in less affluent urban neighbourhoods which become the target of development, including university development. But universities have the power to make a difference, by embracing best practice informed by research, teaching and outreach, committing to principles of long-term social and environmental sustainability, and remembering that (in the words of architect Sir Peter Shepheard), ‘The plan of a university, like that of a city, should be a mechanism for enabling things to happen, for the enhancement of life’.

‘Global urban higher education: the challenges and potentials of internationalisation’, London Symposium 2015, took place on 16th and 17th September at UCL. Audio recordings of the full proceedings will shortly be available at https://soundcloud.com/uclurbanlab. For further information about the Urban Lab + International Network of Urban Laboratories, see http://www.urbanlabplus.eu.