Northern Lights: Making any university a vital and vibrant part of the city’s landscape

Sheffield Hallam University has ambitious plans
Sheffield Hallam University has ambitious plans

For anyone who is arriving at Sheffield’s Railway Station, the very first sight you will see is of Sheffield Hallam University.

This is the ten-storey Owen building which was built for Sheffield in the 1960s and it towers above the city.

There is strong evidence of what universities can do for cities: driving vibrant economies, building opportunities and meeting cultural and social aspirations.

When I first of all came to Sheffield to be interviewed for the job I now have, I came here with a sense of a university which was at the very heart of its city and region which engaged me – and it is something which, over the years, has driven my thinking about the future direction of the University.

Readers of the Sheffield Telegraph will know that a couple of weeks ago Sheffield Hallam University published its ambitious, long-term master plan for the future of Sheffield Hallam’s city campus.

Over a decade and a half we will transform the Sheffield Hallam campus and, in doing so, we will transform the city, linking the current railway station and the planned HS2 station to the retail centre of the city.

Although the ten-storey Owen building towers above the city skyline, there is also a good deal more to do in the city to create a clearer sense of a vibrant urban university precinct in the streets around the University.

What we want is for the University to be a much stronger presence in the streetscape, with a much clearer sense of its place at the heart of the city.

We want to enhance the experience for our students – and of course, giving them a stronger sense of their place in the city, but we also want to enhance the way the citizens of Sheffield and also of South Yorkshire engage with the University, which means much greater attention to the public realm around the University. At the very core of all of our academic buildings will be a striking University Square, acting as a focus for the work of the University.

There is strong evidence of what universities can do for their cities: driving vibrant economies, building opportunities and meeting cultural and social aspirations.

There is a difference between the universities of many great American cities and most English universities.

Most English universities have tended to be built on the edge of cities.

The new universities of the 1960s were built on greenfield sites on the edge of cities and, as a result, were often slightly separate from their communities.

This was not true in the United States, where universities over there like Johns Hopkins, New York, Columbia, Rutgers and Chicago are embedded in their cities, in locations from which they can serve diverse communities and students.

As we think about the future of Sheffield Hallam University, we have drawn on international experience: we want to create a really dynamic city centre campus in a way which barely exists in this country.

This matters.

Buildings are, of course, very important in their own right but they are also a means to an end.

The way they are designed and the way they are built and used says powerful things about what the university itself is for, how it wants to work, how it wants to engage with others.

In an earlier job I had I remember interviewing someone who was applying for a junior administrative post.

It turned out that she had been born and she had grown up on the estate next door to the university, but she had never set foot on the campus before applying for the job.

Separating universities from their communities works for no-one.

Sheffield Hallam is at the heart of the city and of the region; thousands of our students undertake placements, work experience and volunteering activities across the city.

As we develop our estate, we want to do it in a way which conveys the values which underpin the university: open and engaged with the city, playing a dynamic role at the heart of the city and shaping a physical environment of which we and the city and the region can be proud.

Our plans are of course ambitious, but we are an ambitious university – we are ambitious for ourselves, we are ambitious for our students and for our city and region.

n What do you think of the new ambitious masterplan for the future of Sheffield Hallam and its city centre campus?

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