Learning Environments: Urban-Suburban

“There is also in the student role a sense of preparation, of separation, indeed of isolation from action and decision-making, while the period of learning, of adjustment to a new self takes place. This isolation, now being so rigorously challenged by the militant, collectivized university student is embodied in the very architecture and setting of most formal institutions. Recently, the growing accessibility of the city university has been deliberately challenged by the enclosed, unitary, seminary-like buildings of Simon Fraser University and Scarborough College.”

A.M. Thomas in ‘Studentship and Membership: A study of roles in learning’; The Journal of Educational Thought ; Vol. 1, No. 2 (1967)


Many of the postwar universities in Canada (Lethbridge, Simon Fraser, Carleton, York) established campuses on suburban sites. While this could be seen as part of a more general exodus from cities at the time (of residential, industrial, and commercial uses), it can be argued that it represented also an ideal in university education at the time.

Two ideals of university education

In The University in an Urban Environment the connection is made between the location and planning of a university with its ideals. This book identifies two ideals or approaches to university education: labelled the conservative and the radical. The former sees the university as ancient, collegiate, enclosed, exclusive, and prioritizes education over training. The latter is modern, non-residential, diffuse, for the masses and vocational. That ideologies “often rely heavily on some symbolic physical expression” (Abercrombie 20) meant the ‘conservative’ desire for a cloistered, autonomous, academic community became a convenient narrative for the isolated, suburban campus embraced by university planners during the postwar years.

The notion that universities should offer an insular environment for seeking truth is central also to the American “collegiate ideal” as described by Horvat and Shaw—motivated by “a set of assumptions about both education and American society” as well as a “fear of the city and its corruption”. (Horvat 101)

As was the case in Canada, growing enrolment in 1950s and 1960s Britain led to the creation of the ‘New Universities’ throughout that the United Kingdom. Their campuses were notably situated on the outskirts of small cities—not in the larger industrial urban centres. The decision to locate the new universities in these cathedral towns “with medieval or pre-industrial associations, was certainly no accident.” (Abercrombie 26) This image was seen as attractive to staff and students. Connotations aside, the hope was that the addition of a university to these areas meant that the local community could benefit from the cultural activity. Indeed, while the ultimate decisions to locate the New Universities was made centrally by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in London, these were made based on applications made by local authorities (Abercrombie 22). However, the UGC’s preference for suburban sites (often located several kilometres out of the centres) meant that the interaction between ‘towns and gowns’ was limited. Communities had anticipated greater stimulation, but were left disenchanted by the universities’ location at their periphery. Students living in residence, on the largely self-sufficient campuses, had few reasons to come into the cities. Their isolation caused also a disconnect from the ‘real life’ found more readily in cities, and complicated the question of housing. The ambition to house the majority of students on campus rarely was achieved, yet the distance to town was often inconvenient.

Finally, while the reason for the peripheral location of postwar universities was motivated by practical concerns—the cost of land was lower, and large tracts of land were easier to acquire in the countryside—the advantages of a suburban site were often short-term: the investment in required infrastructure ultimately has little benefit for the larger community.

University of Toronto – St. George Campus

University of Toronto – Scarborough Campus


While older universities were established in urban centres by “accident rather than design” (Abercrombie 19), universities have played an important role—since at least the 1970s—in the renewal of urban areas.

Urban renewal has become increasingly associated with the “knowledge economy” (Ross). The post-industrial cities that have fared well economically rely on white collar employment and higher learning. Cities recognize that institutions can bring in new business (Ross).

With access to a larger pool of professionals and experts, urban universities can

“be relieved of the need to recruit new full-time staff to give instruction in certain specialized topics.” (Abercrombie 37) Unlike the isolation experienced on suburban campuses, the urban university can provide “an opportunity for an intellectual community to test its ideas agains the complex reality of life” in cities (Horvat 101). Equally, it can more easily cater to the non-traditional student: through night courses, continuing education and part-time enrolment.

Satellite Campus

Lethbridge University, one of the suburban postwar universities in Canada, has established two satellite campuses in Calgary and Edmonton. Both offer programs in Management.

Lethbridge University – Lethbridge Campus

Lethbridge University – Calgary Campus

Works Cited

Abercrombie, Nicholas. The University in an Urban Environment: A Study of Activity Patterns from a Planning Viewpoint Sponsored by the Centre for Environmental Studies. London: Heinemann Educational, 1974. Print.

Horvat, Erin McNamara. Redefining Campus: Urban Universities and the Idea of Place. New directions for higher education .105 1999: 101-107. John Wiley & Sons Inc. 26 Apr 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “Universities and the Urban Growth Machine.” Dissent Magazine. October 4, 2012. 38-61.

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