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Campus Design and the Urban Interface 

Photo courtesy of Gensler

Last December, as part of Gensler’s firmwide Education Practice Area Next Gen Initiative, the London office, where I work, considered all the ways education campuses interact with their immediate surroundings. We call this the Urban Interface.

A roundtable discussion kicked off the initiative and identified several current and future trends relevant to higher education. We reflected on the geographical, technological, social, and learning changes that are affecting the way educational institutions interact with their customers (aka students) and surrounding environments.

What resulted was a series of Urban Interface typologies we believe define these current and future campus trends.

    Suburban/Rural: Has dedicated facilities separated from the surrounding environment, allowing for multiple interactions between educators and students; establishes a clear institutional identity but offers less real estate flexibility and less accessibility if the student is off campus.
    Urban Cluster: Offers real estate flexibility, allowing for interaction with educators and accessibility both on and off campus. As students are more dispersed, however, interactions between them are fewer, and the sense of institutional identity isn’t as strong.
    Urban: Has dedicated facilities allowing for interactions between educators and students and is accessible on and off campus, as it is based in the community. It offers less real estate flexibility.
    Virtual: Possesses no real estate but is accessible from anywhere. As the institutional identity is digital, it is thus not part of the greater community.
    Global: Real estate accessible in multiple locations exports the institutional identity and allows for interactions between educators and students. This reach could be seen as diluting the offer (exclusivity).

Technological advances — especially the pervasive nature of digital communication and media — are driving many on-campus changes. Institutions of higher education might actually need fewer dedicated facilities as a result of greater interconnectivity via virtual platforms, and the facilities they do possess don’t always need to be centralised. This change automatically favours models such as the Urban Cluster, which can be far more flexible with regard to location and the amount of real estate an institution possesses. The centralised typologies of a Suburban/Rural or an Urban campus are not as flexible in this regard, while the Virtual typology is the epitome of this trend.

We also see the need for educational institutions to develop smarter business models. As we’ve seen in recent studies, students are seeking more interactions with educators. This translates into a need for more dedicated real estate — but trends can change. A more flexible typology provides wiggle room for the future.

However, we also need to look beyond what higher education institutions offer students and consider how they use their facilities to integrate with and support local communities. This shifts the focus to offering and running multipurpose facilities in a manner suitable for all possible users. Both locally and globally, this would allow an institution to interact with the surrounding community, in turn generating more opportunities for interaction and increasing the diversity of the groups of people using the institution’s facilities.

Locally, this would mean that campuses could serve as attractors, generating revenue by offering services to the greater community. Multi-use spaces such as lecture theatres or libraries could be rented to local groups and businesses; laboratories could be made available to research institutions; sporting venues could open up to local sports clubs (which frequently can’t afford to have their own facilities); and housing could be incorporated and used by visitors or businesses during school holidays.

Spinning the need for a better business model trend out even farther, you could argue that institutions could start trading on their brand on a global level. A parent university could establish satellite campuses across the globe. Each offshoot could generate local revenue through its own facilities while allowing students from across the globe to receive an education. Go global by engaging at the local level, and make sure locals have a stake in the institution and the role that institution plays in the surrounding community.

Current campus facilities can be adapted to fit both of these trends, but in the future they may need to look toward different development models when considering the establishment of new facilities. We will continue to research and refine these models and to talk to clients about how they can be applied at their campuses.

Sarah Mathieson is an Architectural Assistant from the Gensler London office. Sarah is an active member of the Education + Culture Next Gen Group and has a passion for designing spaces for learning, harnessing her experience in interior and architectural design of educational, retail and work spaces. Contact her at sarah_mathieson@gensler.com.

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