How campuses can gain a competitive advantage

by FM Media
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How to prepare universities for the future through master planning that responds to context, and results in enhanced use of space and an attractive university experience is explained by HASSELL principal, ADAM DAVIES.

One thing is certain for universities today; they are in a period of significant change. The landscape for the delivery of higher education and research is evolving rapidly due to a constellation of domestic and external factors, and the responsiveness of the sector will be key to its future competitiveness.
There are a number of considerations that contribute to the attraction and retention of students, top academics and researchers, and key among them is the campus – the built environment. It is the setting in which the theatre of university life plays out and it significantly contributes to the student experience.
However, new pedagogies, changes in student demography and increasing competition are putting pressure on traditional campus facilities. Students aren’t using these facilities less but they are using them differently. This is prompting universities to consider how they can adjust to future staff and student needs.
Another significant development is the growing involvement of the private sector, as evidenced through increasingly complex private and philanthropic partnerships.
This all requires universities to consider how well prepared they are to move forward with certainty in an environment that requires adaptability and flexibility.

Setting the future direction for universities is a critical element of business planning, and this is where the master plan comes into its own.
Master planning seeks to ask questions about the future role of universities; what their form, function and contribution to our cities and regions will be. It seeks to explore the future of these environments, while clearly establishing the mission, values and principles in which the universities of tomorrow will be founded.
A comprehensive master plan is also crucial in providing greater levels of certainty to government, funders and partners who rely on spatial, operational and strategic information and clear governance mechanisms to make informed decisions about investment in university campuses and refurbished and new facilities. These external partners need to be confident that:

  • their investment will be sound
  • it will be protected by robust decision making, and
  • future development will be sensitive to their business needs and will protect their brand, environmental quality and amenity needs.

In 2011, the University of Queensland undertook to define the brief for a new master plan for its St Lucia Campus and other landholdings. As part of that project, HASSELL conducted a review of the publicly available master plans of the members of the Group of Eight universities in order to identify and understand the trends in higher education campus planning generally.
While unique to location, we found the eight master plans reviewed were similar in many ways. Most of the universities have referenced the three essential components of best practice master planning – the strategic framework, the spatial master plan and the implementation plan.
However, it was interesting to note that none of the plans contained the full spectrum in recommended detail, which exposes them to governance, planning and funding risks.
Some of the areas that aren’t generally covered by the plans include:

  • broader matters of regional economic contribution
  • complex built environment analysis, and
  • strategies where planning, architecture and landscape architecture combine.

Master planning pieces together the constituent parts through urban design. Experience has shown that a whole campus proposition is strengthened where a robust and thoughtful conversation is undertaken between client, users, decision makers and their designers.
The focus for universities undertaking strategic planning should be a greater alignment between their business needs and the role that their campus will play in delivering on their aspirations. In particular, future master plans should provide six clear outcomes.

1. Master plans should satisfy the university’s client’s needs as well as regulatory planning responsibilities
There must be a clear purpose for the master plan, catering for both the university’s role as client and steward of the campus environment, and their need to work within local planning frameworks.

2. Master plans should seek to capitalise on areas of investment and opportunity, particularly where they are spatially concentrated
They must be inclusive by nature, negotiate a diverse group of interests, and integrate multiple opportunities. Universities are part of a wider city system and must capitalise on future projects and infrastructure investment and likewise contribute to the cultural and social life of our cities.

3. Master plans should establish clear principles aligned with a university’s strategic direction and provide clear direction for projects in the short to medium term
The days of the large volume master plan are ending; instead each must be clearly focused on future spatial and physical needs, but provide flexibility as technology and pedagogies continue to evolve. A range of design strategies that can be implemented in the short to medium term should support this framework. The focus should be on clearly demonstrating how these projects can be implemented over the next five to 10 years.
Our experience has been to develop an overarching framework coupled with a range of typologies for buildings, public realm and streets.

4. Ideas should be communicated clearly and visually to assist future decisions and management
The use of compelling visual material, such as 3D models, and investment in building information management systems (BIM) and geographical information systems (GIS) will have an enduring benefit that can help inform future decision making and management.

5. Clear governance arrangements for implementation of the master plan should be established
Things will change, so a rigorous master plan must establish the governance arrangements for future projects and decision making.

6. A review panel should be established to promote good design and advise and empower decision makers
A design review panel representing diverse interests ensures that the campus environment has the best chance to evolve into the future, while assisting universities in maintaining their stewardship of these most important institutions.

For a sizeable proportion of our population, the university campus is an important contributor to the transition to young adult. We have an opportunity to impart lessons about social interaction, group working, problem solving and sustainability. We mustn’t underestimate the role of tomorrow’s campus – or the role that effective master planning has in ensuring each university is best equipped to meet its future challenges.

Adam Davies is a principal at international design practice, HASSELL. He is an experienced urban planner and designer, who specialises in health, education and science projects. Davies heads HASSELL’s planning discipline in Queensland and previously held posts in the UK at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and Architecture and Design Scotland.

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