Town and gown: connective communities or a wrong turn on the collegiate expressway?

Professor Kit Thompson, Diretor do Colégio, Universidade de Macau

 The early years in setting out on the Macau challenge have felt like propitious and opportune moments. They have brought forth the opportunity to embed a living and learning community of teachers and scholars freely sharing their knowledge and doing so, not inside monastic walls, but resolutely alongside Macau business, professional and cultural communities. What has since developed has been rapid, extensive, verging on the audacious. Realising the largest collegiate system in Asia with colleges in a state of becoming, represents an ambitious challenge in itself.

Prior to experiencing the Colleges, visitors from all walks of life – business to academe and the arts – may perhaps be in something of a quandary: whether such a quest is naïve to the enormity of the task ahead, and which in England began with Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1284, or, unburdened by the weight of collegiate history, shrewdly propitious? Meeting the challenge of moving to a collegiate system – for system is what it is rather than constituent, loosely federated colleges – will make the University, its Colleges – and Macau itself – quite unlike anywhere else.

China’s, until recently, unbroken rise has changed people’s lives fundamentally. In Guangzhou, workshop of the world – manufacturing everything from smart phones to supercars – migrant, formerly destitute farm workers live cheek-by-jowl in dormitories alongside the capacious starchitecture apartments of billionaire yacht owners. Magnet to migrant, lives determined by wherewithal are unceasingly itinerant.

Chinese New Year sees the largest migration in human history with some 2.48 billion journeys[1] undertaken over the annual Spring Festival. Universities across China have therefore to tolerate some elasticity in the academic year for departing and returning travellers.

Issues of migrant elasticity, just what the future holds for migrant workers, has yet to be played out but there are books on self-improvement within their Guangzhou dormitories 5-6 people in a room, the flip side of a collegiate way. Yet their dormitory books and dreams of better lives lend validation and meaning to their environments, places of labour. What money is made, often working a 7-day week as Saturday and Sunday there is overtime, is spent on children’s education or saved for health care.

Parents in Asia and Mexico are most likely to be willing to go into debt to fund their child’s university education: 81% in China, 74% in Mexico, 71% in India, and 67% in Hong Kong. Parents in the UK (43%), Australia (44%) and France (46%) are least likely to be willing to incur debt. The principal obligation, it seems, for funding university education resides with parents: 84% of them contributing towards the cost (Foundations for the Future[2])

In Macao, constructive measures are being put in place to help address some of the territory’s social responsibilities, economic inequalities and exigencies of city life. Yet wide disparities of incomes remain. With economic divides come questions of balancing the social mobility equation.

Regardless of its reputation as one of the world’s wealthiest territories, for many of Macau’s 600,000 permanent residents who have witnessed the social realities and cultural consequences of economic vicissitudes, the financial reserves accumulated have yet to translate across-the-board into an improved quality of everyday life, health care, social development and equality of opportunity.

Several of the city’s major infrastructure projects stand in medias res, requiring careful project management if time from construction to completion is to be reduced. This is not to play the denier to so much positive progress, rather to point up that moments of latency are sometimes synonymous with lost opportunity. Poignantly, these could also be defining moments for the city.

In the greater Pearl River Delta, emergent, radically modern cities spring up – seemingly overnight. They share similar degrees of societal angst, affective excess and environmental concern. In this sense next generation leaders – particularly those working on the cusp and hinterlands of some of the world’s largest metropolitan areas – will need to become seismic detectors of social and environmental fault lines, some of the most pressing issues of the day. They will need to address knock-on effects caused by rapidity of social change, bring forward timely, agenda-setting initiatives, be they those of infrastructure and logistics, integrated transport systems, environmental protection and sustainability. World cities – by definition – are those in which everything ties up and functions with some consistency and regularity of service.

Reasoned approaches will be needed for what is in store for future towns, cities and urban conurbations, if large groups of people are to coexist in harmony and shared mutuality. Ian McEwan, in his novel Nutshell, argues that the world has become such a complex place that people are progressively looking for irrationally simplistic solutions to endemic societal challenges. ‘It’s dusk, he says, in the second Age of Reason’. If we do live in an age of unreason, how might collegiate living and learning effect reasoned approaches, untie some of the tangled Gordian knots of urban life and enable livable, breathable and creative cities?

Charles Landry’s The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators[3], has, as inferred, become something of a manual for city-makers. In conversation with Nicholas Keynon[4] recently, Landry, Beijing DeTao Masters Academy, talked of five essentials of city-making starting with anchorage in the past, a sense of tradition, of heritage, and of the familiar.

These, he says, are combined with a sense of possibility, of a willingness in which there are options and choices. He talks of the importance of connection – between neighbours, friends and communities, across the city as a whole, and vital, extensive networks so people are both locally anchored and some familiarity with the world at large.

A fourth essential, he avers, is a sense that people are able to grow and to learn – the essence of all our work in education – that the city can become more than was once thought possible. Fifthly, with an aspirational trajectory in play, he adds a sense of inspiration – something more than is already present. In this sense, ‘inspiration historically might have been the Church’, Landry says. ‘Today it might be a gallery, a museum, or a person. Ideally, the city itself which inspires’. These five essentials might also be appropriated as keys to college development and to collegiate development.

Perhaps it appears to be overvaluing the influence of collegiate living and learning – and that alone providing vital inspiration to the large, amorphous conurbations and communities which surround our campuses. Smart campuses, smart cities, intuitively sounds all too glib. Yet one has only to look to examples where this is patently the case. Cities and collegiate ways of living and learning where the community engages with, takes pride in a quality of shared campus life. These bring not generic gentrification, nor simply detached academic spectators with little impact on the community around them, but the propinquity of research and development locally grounded and communitarian. There is a sense of shared ownership and mutuality forging links across town and gown. They provide a powerful rationale for collaborations seeking to improve the quality of everyday engagement and everyday life in the world about us.

With those in mind, how confident can we be about the formative rôles collegiate life can play with a city’s progress? Of the rôle of colleges and a collegiate approach to university education being valued in business and wider community at large, with city shapers and town planners? What rôle can collegiate life play in enabling urban communities to develop and adapt as conducive, enriched places to live, work and play?

One indication may reside in the experience of Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at LSE, who has has looked at Medellín, and Bogotá Columbia, and seen how they have responded to challenges of inequality and overcrowding with perceptive and intelligent resourcefulness. They have found new ways of moving people around their cities, new forms of stakeholder engagement with the districts, neighbourhoods and hitherto discrete societies. They have thought through placement of schools, colleges and libraries, sited them where they are most needed, in favelas and barrios. We may cite El Sistema, publicly-financed music education in Venezuela as another example of insightful inventiveness. Perhaps resourcefulness of this order alone is reason enough for feeling positive about the rôle living and learning can play in reconceiving and re-appropriating urban spaces, in developing conducive cities and ways forward[5].

Naturally, it means meeting head on some of the exigencies and compound challenges facing cities today: environmental threats, rampant urban expansion, gridlock congestion, excessive pollution and attendant social issues – long working hours and excessive overtime on which so many family economies throughout the world are predicated. More and more people, it seems, are subsisting in conditions without viable infrastructure.

Whist the correspondence between creative cities and collegiate learning and living may appear somewhat one-dimensional, it is legion in its implications. Colleges, like the best planned cities, bring people together. They are place makers and makers of ritual.

Ancient collegiate universities where worlds of academe, civic and commerce are physically coterminous, stand today, together with newer incarnations – especially those in developing countries – like medieval cities reinvented’[6]. Buildings tightly inserted in narrowed spaces evoke times when city and scholastic guild, were intricately entwined. Civic guilds and academe – universitas, were interdependent.

As essentially dynamic places full of bright young students eager to engage in a world in and outside of the quod, colleges can be liminal yet connective spaces for people to voice their feelings, provide rational structures for constructive intervention, become a locus for rethinking relationships with the built environment, and enable much needed dialogue to occur, democratising power, balancing vying sets of interests, underpinning planning with local and grounded scholarship.

Through shared fora, through actively deploying arts-based practices of dérive and reminiscence[7], story-telling and narrative, together city communities and colleges layer living histories brought into being by the relationships between people and place[8].

Through collegiate discourse the possibility exists of bringing a critical communal dimension to say, architectural purity – leavened by social imperatives, to making coherent and pragmatic choices in terms of urban development, bringing together a city’s ‘collections of communities’, as architect Eric Parry terms them.

Parry underlines the importance of cities as collections of communities, of bringing ‘humanity into the heart of a great social city: a celebration of a poetic art dimension of life and a stimulus: theatre, music, film and galleries – these are the great stimulae. It is the way one can reckon the life of a city, says Parry, part of the mythopoetic dimension to the city which seems, to be absolutely essential to its well-being.

Perhaps living a collegiate way of life itself can assist cities to survive, thrive and adapt to the complexities which have to be faced, imbue spaces with meaning, myth, rite and ritual, in Parry’s words, add perhaps, a poetic art dimension to life, and enable a sense of well being.

To any inferred ellipsis we may, perhaps, supplement Parry’s great stimulae. with the stimulus of libraries, museums, and of colleges enlivened by public-facing intelligent undergrads, and by their engagement with the genius loci.

The history of mankind is in cities, in libraries, galleries, museums, and colleges. From ancient seats of learning, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and St Andrews, to modern-day university towns, for as long as colleges and collegiate universities are located within reach of urban conurbations, the strength, connectivity and relevance of their town and gown, community, civic and business interactions will remain a purposeful benchmark. No more so, perhaps, than in a vibrant, precipitously transforming China.

In facilitating the process of development, two initiatives, Mainland and Macao: ‘One belt, one road’; and ‘one centre, one platform’, may be seen as synergistic. The former, a 21c Silk Road and maritime economic belt focuses on connectivity across Mainland and Eurasia. The latter, looks to sustainable, integrated solutions, and to Macau – within the Pearl River Delta – as a centre of tourism and leisure. Whilst just 4% of Chinese own passports – unrequired for visits to Hong Kong and Macau – the expectation is that Mainland tourist numbers will continue to grow worldwide, excluding Hong Kong and Macau, to increase c.2.5 times to 130m in 2025, from 50m in 2015.

In a year which saw the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, will cities of the future beget bonfires of vanities after taking a wrong turn on the collegiate expressway? Or will cities meet essential challenges not yet sufficiently embraced, look to sustainable, integrated solutions[9] and, enabled by their local collegiate partners, their ways of communal living and engagement with the genius loci, bring forth an urban renaissance? Cities which exude positive energy, light and well-being.

[1] 2.48 billion journeys by road, 332 million by railway, 54.55 million trips by air and 42.8 million by water during this period, according to official 2016 estimates. International Business Times February 2016

[2] A survey of over 6,200 parents in 15 countries. A report in The Value of Education series: Three in five parents would take on debt to fund their children’s education, HSBC June 2016.

[3] Earthscan, ISBN: 978-1-84407-598-0

[4] Cities from the Ashes, aural documentary source presented by Nicholas Kenyon, 4 September 2016, BBC

[5] cf, Literature associated with:

Le CRESSON (Centre de recherche sur l’espace sonore & l’environnement urbain)

[6] Nick Keynon, ibid 2016

[7] Böhme 2013, talks of the ‘theatricalisation’ of everyday life’. The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres, Ambiances 315 1-8

[8] Creating ambiances, co-constructing place: a poetic transect across the city, Jones & Jam RGS Area 2016, 317-324

[9] For example, to water, waste management and biodiversity.


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