In praise of univer-cities

In the past quarter century I’ve been carried, toddled and walked through the middle of Gateshead. And in that time, I’ve seen my town change, grow and mature, just as much as I have.

Last year a new Gateshead was unveiled – one that was unrecognisable to the town centre I walked through for years before. And above the town centre’s Tesco there are now 993 new beds for Northumbria University students to lay their heads. Last weekend the aisles of Tesco were teeming with with freshers as they exhausted the retailer’s stock of home essentials – pots, pans, duvets – for their new rooms.

According to estate agent Knight Frank, university cities including Newcastle, Liverpool and Edinburgh have an “acute undersupply of accommodation” for students. With an extra 30,000 undergraduates enrolling in England this autumn and another 30,000 to follow in 2015 after student number controls were relaxed, universities like Northumbria and Newcastle have rushed to upgrade and expand their student halls.

Trinity Square, Gateshead, by Dan Prince/Northumbria University

Trinity Square, Gateshead, by Dan Prince/Northumbria University

Universities are now the largest landowners and landlords in many UK towns and cities. And with that wealth and power comes responsibility for introducing buildings and students that bring benefit to the community.

To some locals, the influx of more students to a neighbourhood brings only noise, drinking, litter: antisocial behaviour. But I remember what was there before in Gateshead. Trinity Square hasn’t won any prizes for outstanding beauty (in fact, it was shortlisted as an eyesore by architectural magazine). But it’s infinitely better than the spare and sparse town centre it replaced. I can still remember hopping between the puddles under Owen Luder’s brutalist car park and into the unloved indoor market to visit a video-game shop that sold legal second-hand games over the counter… and cheap copied ones under it.

Gateshead at the turn of the millennium was desolate and bleak. Some parts still are, but redevelopment is radiating out from the middle. Some £120m of investment has been ploughed into the town centre, focused around the new supermarket and university accommodation. Residents far and wide reap the benefits. For younger generations, growing up in Gateshead will be a very different proposition.

In 2010, as enormous cranes were dismantling the Luder’s concrete car park and its abandoned shops, nibble by nibble, I wrote about the Get Carter car park, and the people who stopped by on their morning commutes to capture the progressive demolition on their camera-phones:

“Despite the fact that pound shops that snuggled inside its lower floors were ten a penny and pretty much all you could get at the rundown cafes ran like a Biblical sermon (“egg and chips, ham and chips, fish and chips, bun and chips, pie and chips”), there was a sense of unity with the car park which meant that everyone who passes and looks up at the demolition is doing so with a “good riddance” coming from their mouth but a tear in their eye.”

The only reminder of this darker, drearier past is the “Get Carter” butchers that sits across from the street where the car park once stood. For the thousand fresh-faced students who moved into their new homes this week, and who will watch films at the local cinema, buy groceries in the new shops, and eat in the restaurants that have taken residence since Trinity Square’s foundations were laid, that name will mean nothing. But research suggests that every £1 invested in students by universities is worth £1.38 to the economy of a town like Gateshead.

Gateshead is becoming a “univer-city”. Embrace it, because a vibrant “univer-city” with new buildings, bright residents and big dreams is better than an abandoned, steel-shuttered movie set with a single, fading claim to fame.

Chris Stokel-Walker is deputy editor of Northern Correspondent

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3 thoughts on “In praise of univer-cities

  1. Interesting piece. There are potential issues when the students leave for the holidays, though, and the possible impact that can have on the infrastructure. In St Andrews the students make up about 1/3 of the town’s population. Fortunately, there’s the golfing public to step in when the students are away (in the summer in particular), but it’s fast becoming a town of just eateries, charity shops and golf shops, although that may just be a feature of St Andrews…

  2. There’s no denying that an influx of students can occasion a great deal of positive change within a location: they bring a lot of desirable amenities to an area – the restaurants and cinemas referred to in this article, for instance – they’re willing to work unpopular and irregular hours for local businesses, and they tend to spend a lot of money. Having said all, I think we’ve got to be careful to locate this discussion within its broader economic context – particularly, with respect to the kind of urbanism that’s been emerging in Britain over the past ten to fifteen years or so and the myriad social problems related to it.

    Now I should stress, that I’m not out to pour scorn on the student population: they bring a lot of benefits to the communities they move into, and I think this article does a really good job of documenting them; of course, by virtue of the fact that all these concomitant amenities make a place more desirable, they tend to raise the cost of buying or renting in the area. More than that, though, a sizeable student contingent tends to affect massive changes in the nature of the local housing stock: what might once have been a family home becomes a multiple occupancy house; where there was once a preponderance of owner occupiers, there’s now a sizeable population of short term renters. So, on top of the boost to house prices occasioned by the arrival of Pizza Express and Cineworld, houses themselves become the subject of frenzied bidding wars between prospective landlords. Now, look, I’m not trying to imply that this is all bad: indeed, if you own the property you live in, it’s probably an extraordinarily welcome development; if, though, you’re renting and/or are looking to buy your first home in the area, then it’s pretty detrimental to your interests, and, barring a win on the pools, you’re likely to be left with no reasonable option other than to move out of the neighbourhood. In and of itself, there’s nothing alarming about this – people are always being priced out of living in desirable areas – but I’d argue that the pace and the scale of what we’re witnessing in Britain at the minute is remarkable: it’s effectively a mass exodus of lower-income individuals and families out of inner city areas, toward more peripheral locales on the outskirts of towns and cities. It’s essential to point out that “studentification” is just one of multiple factors at work here, but it is a very significant one, for the simple reason that students are almost always ahead of the curve; they need somewhere affordable to live, and universities are generally loath to spend any more than is absolutely necessary building student accommodation – hence, a significant student population moving into slightly raffish areas, and the businesses they depend on following them in. And of course, when a student area becomes too bourgeois for its own good, this process begins again; it acquires a momentum of its own.

    Unfortunately, at this point I have to admit that I’m fairly ignorant as to the specifics of Gateshead’s redevelopment, but campus sprawl is a significant feature of innumerable cities across Britain. It goes without saying that it’s at its most acute in London – the sheer weight of numbers combined with unprecedented levels of property speculation see to that – but it’s quite evident in places like Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, hell, even Cambridge (a town which could hardly be described as having a shortage of university accommodation). The material consequence of this trend will, of course, be to concentrate poverty in ever-smaller pockets – so what we’re effectively doing is ghettoising people, either in sink estates, or on the periphery of large conurbations; this brings with it a whole raft of intractable social ills.

    It might also be worth ruminating on the fact that the Student Halls which universities like Northumbria are building are increasingly designed to cater to a very specific demographic within the student population – the ones with a bit of cash. Unfortunately, I can’t get any figures on the Trinity Square development, but the guide prices on Northumbria’s new build accommodation seem to vary from around £4,500 p.a. to a little over £6,500; considering that the upper-bound on a student maintenance loan is about £5,700, it’s expensive on any metric. Now, in saying this, I’m not trying to suggest that universities are all run by a bunch of rapacious capitalist bastards – the expansion of deluxe student accommodation mirrors the rising price of education – but, from an access perspective, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. Moreover, as and when those students from less affluent backgrounds make it to university they’re probably going to have to rent a flat in altogether less salubrious climes – often further away from the campus proper – which might leave them a bit excluded from the life of the university, but, more importantly, often means they’re having to spend a significant percentage of their loan on transport to and from university. (I’ll grant though, that this isn’t really a problem that really affects Newcastle.)

  3. Some very thoughtful comments from Gordon and David. I was born and raised in Blaydon and attended Newcastle University in the early seventies. I have lived in the US for almost 40 years mostly in California but for,the last 8 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a univer-city with the highly ranked University of Michigan dominating the town – over half the population at its peak during the year. There are always the “town vs gown” debates but overall the contribution of the University is very positive.
    There is a lot of new student accomodation being built and it seems like a new restaurant is opening every other week but the overall quality of life is high. Now that I am retired I must admit that I really enjoy the young vibe and all of the arts and music that comes along with a great University.
    The University of Michigan like many others including Newcastle is very active in creating and supporting start up companies which have a positive impact.

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