The Battle Between ‘Campus’ and ‘Community’: The Good, The Bad, The Empty

©Les Grands Voisins

©Les Grands Voisins

One of today’s big ideas in city-building, and frankly suburb-building, is that of The Campus – the contemporary version of the business park of yore. More urban in nature, they are places for work, education and research that have been supplanted with community-building and quality of life. They take inspiration from university campuses, but so often get the lessons completely wrong.

Some of these places remain focused on education and fostering industries around it, such as London’s Here East, where Loughborough and Staffordshire universities, as well as UCL, have taken space. Others have just added new nomenclature to preexisting conditions: in London, King’s Cross, Euston Road and Bloomsbury have been roped together as a ‘Knowledge Quarter’ – the same name recently given Liverpool city centre – laying some claim as home to education, knowledge and research sectors.

Elsewhere, the terminology fades away, but the vision of a do-it-all, productivity-focused district remains – take Amazon’s 8.8 million square feet in the South Lake Union neighbourhood in Seattle, now nicknamed ‘Amazonia’. Mixed-use, high-density, one single dominant institution.

Huge companies, most often in tech – Facebook, Apple, Google – very often dive into Campus terminology headfirst. It appeals because, well, this is the knowledge economy, after all. And weren’t those university years fun? 

The idea of a work-hard, play-hard university-style environment can appeal to the fresh talent newly emerging from higher education.

Those corporate giants also replicate in many more ways the campus lifestyle: lines are blurred between workplaces and leisure places, where lunch hours are used up in company-sponsored yoga classes, and who needs to leave for the pub when beer is free-flowing from 5pm? It's a lifestyle that both attracts talent, and traps them – a fast-track to Stockholm Syndrome as their employers begin to control so much of their lives; even, at times, their commute.

These new business parks – whether city centre or exurban – attempt to create neighbourhoods. Amenities often include grocery stores and pharmacies, hotels, gyms, restaurants, and, even homes. They are desperate to blend into or create “communities”. 

Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., also runs Sidewalk Labs: essentially a developer, but one “creating a new type of place to accelerate urban innovation,” building a neighbourhood “from the Internet up.”

The language (even the name) and the aspiration is pure “campus” – but it’s not community. It’s nothing you’d have heard a great urbanist, such as Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte or Jan Gehl, describe.

This new "campus" is often top-down, driven by a company’s need to create a particular type of environment for their own ends: getting the most out of a workforce, or, unnervingly in the case of Sidewalk Labs, in part to collect our data.

So, what is the difference between the successful, community-creating model of the campus, and the 21st-century version of “The Campus”?

Empty space, for one. 

A university campus is a platform; for the most part, it says to those who use it “It’s up to you to make something of this place.” Starting a group? Here’s a room for free. Want a radio show? Sign up and start broadcasting. Don’t like how we’ve organised things? Run in our elections.

There are services and amenities, to be sure. But the campus doesn’t take full responsibility in making this a good place to spend all of your time.

It doesn’t ‘curate,’ it supports. 

Take, for example, Les Grand Voisins in Paris. A former hospital turned home to 200 residents and 150 tenants who occupy a series of spaces, indoor and out, that comprise of pop-up and permanent restaurants and bars, studios and workspaces, and events spaces. It is destined to become a new ‘eco-district’ (any day now) but is currently the biggest meanwhile use project in Europe, at 3.4 hectares.

Driven by a clear set of social values, it became a magnet for those who share them, and in the process allowed a community to create itself. And who has followed? Tourists, by the thousands – 2,000 per day during the summer months.

One lesson is to not impose but give others the chance to create.

Those 150 tenants pay no rent. Sometimes good ideas just need a free room: Apple, the world’s most valuable company, was founded not in Tech Campus, but in a humble garage – so was Amazon, so was Google, and so was Disney.

We sometimes overcomplicate what it takes to create places for ideas and entrepreneurship. And creating a community out of it can become an asset to a broader public. Yet, the lesson remains: free yoga classes are great, but don’t miss out on plain and simple free space. 

Jenni Carbins