Posted tagged ‘cities’

Do universities sustain cities?

May 9, 2011

A few years ago, during my term of office as President of Dublin City University, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and Dublin City Council decided to embark on an initiative to secure more industry-related investment in the Dublin area. At that time government agencies were increasingly focusing on investment in other parts of the country, and the ‘anywhere-but-Dublin’ approach was creating real issues for the city. The Chamber and the Council set up a working group, and very quickly the key members of the group turned out to be the universities. These days, cities need universities, and need them to be strong, because without them companies in a knowledge-intensive business will not invest there.

In fact, the value of universities to a city is not always fully understood. They supply the skilled graduates needed by industry; they maintain teams of researchers working on the key problems in today’s society; they generate employment on a large scale – universities are typically the largest local employers, or nearly so; and their students and staff are vital customers giving business to local enterprises. In cities where there are two or more universities – and London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin, Aberdeen are just some examples – they will be of vital importance, and any troubles they experience will have an immediate and potentially catastrophic effect on the local economy.

Against this backdrop there are now serious concerns in some places that funding cuts suffered by universities may inflict major damage on some cities more generally. The think tank Centre for Cities has  warned that some cities, in which there are universities that may find it hard to recruit sufficient student numbers over the years ahead, may face serious economic and budget difficulties. In England some universities may not be able to fill places at the high fee levels they have now set, and in other countries public funding cuts may make universities less vibrant participants in the local economy.

What this means is that those taking funding policy decisions need to bear in mind that universities don’t just educate students, they also sustain the places where they are located. As the fear grows that some universities may not be able to survive, so there must also be increasing apprehension about what that will mean for their cities. This latter issue may need some much more direct attention.

Saving the city

April 27, 2011

Some readers will know that I am now a resident of Aberdeen in Scotland. I work in Robert Gordon University, and my office is right in the middle of the city, a few yards from the main thoroughfare, Union Street. Aberdeen, known as the ‘Granite City’, has many elegant buildings and some very old alleyways with cobblestones, churches and historical features. It has a long and popular city beach, within walking distance of the centre. To the west are hugely attractive residential areas with impressive houses and well kept parks. Go to the south of the city, and you can travel along the River Dee, past the second (and growing) campus of my university towards some very pretty suburbs and nearby towns, towards the old market town of Banchory. And yet…

As I write this, it is well after midnight, and shortly I shall walk back to my city centre apartment. As I do so I shall pass some deserted buildings that once housed shops that have moved to modern and very impressive shopping centres. On Union Street I shall see groups of worse-for-wear young people, some of whom will be urinating against shop fronts, while others may be busily overturning litter bins and emptying the contents on the pavement. There will be much noise, and a fairly wild atmosphere. The shops I’ll pass that are still in business are predominantly mobile phone shops and ‘pound shops’, on a street that was designed for elegance rather than economy. It now looks run down.

None of this is peculiar to Aberdeen; it is the story of our cities today. As people’s shopping habits have changed, city authorities have been at a loss as to what to do with the old city centres. Because it is visibly clear that the authorities have no special vision for these areas, the citizens haven’t seen the need to show any respect for them either.

But this isn’t good enough any more. It is not just that we should want to maintain cities that are aesthetically pleasing, we should be aware that running them down has wider effects. A neglected city centre discourages local investment, not least because it raises questions about quality of life. Social problems become more widespread, and we gnaw away at the determination to improve conditions.

Don’t get me wrong about Aberdeen. I have only been here a month, but I already feel a strong affection for it and affinity with it. There is nothing here that cannot be fixed. Indeed, the Chancellor of my university, Sir Ian Wood, has promised a substantial sum of money to renew an area of city gardens in order to regenerate the centre. It has become really important that some steps are taken, and with a degree of urgency. All over the developed world we have known for decades now that shops will tend to move to shopping centres and malls. We must not just let the areas they leave behind become dilapidated and unloved. We must restore our cities. And it can be done.

Creative Dublin

May 12, 2009

It is probably not unfair to say that Ireland as a whole has always had an ambivalent perspective on Dublin. For some time now, in size and influence, Dublin has dominated the state, and certainly since partition (and the placing of Belfast in another jurisdiction in consequence) has been the only major conurbation. Of course there are Cork and Galway and Limerick and others, but without wanting to play down the importance and strong traditions of these places, it has to be said that of them only Cork could really be recognised internationally as a city, and even then it would be a small one (the definition of a ‘city’ being, under the terms of the 1887 International Statistics Conference, a town with over 100,000 inhabitants). But in terms of having critical mass, only Dublin could really be said to count.

Because of its size, together with the large scale clustering of government functions there, Dublin has been the country’s magnet for investment, for migration, and for wealth creation. This has of course produced a significant concentration of people, and over time the city’s quality of life was affected by infrastructure problems, social issues, and just general overcrowding. At the same time other parts of the country were experiencing problems due to population flight – going back to the 19th century at least.

So we have come to love Dublin and loathe it, to seek out its cultural attractions but despair of its discomforts, to admire its political clout and to resent it. So by the time we came to the current decade it had become the received wisdom that Dublin’s people, influence and wealth needed to be distributed around the country. We know about the government’s programme of decentralisation (which got a bad press but was not without logic); we also experienced a spacial strategy operated by economic development agencies, which at least seemed to involve an anywhere-but-Dublin approach to investment. But at the same time, the clustering in particular of so many higher education institutions in the Dublin area made it difficult to have an effective decentralisation of investment.

Last momth the National Competitiveness Council (of which I am a member) published its report Our Cities: Drivers of National Competitiveness, which placed some emphasis on the role of cities as drivers of competitiveness and creators of wealth. It recommended that the country should work positively with cities – and Dublin in particular – to allow them to be drivers of growth and competitiveness in these challenging times. By doing so we can engage the key aspects of national development that cities can help to deliver, including enterprise, connectivity, sustainability and attractiveness and inclusivity, using the key resources of education and research activities and health facilities in particular. In the meantime, driven by Dublin City Council and supported by the other Dublin region local authorities, the Creative Dublin Alliance has been formed, linking universities and colleges, local government and industry.

Dublin has a significant critical mass of Ireland’s higher education institutions, and these too must collaborate to reinforce the potential for the city to become the engine for national recovery. There is much that, between us all, we can achieve.


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