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University challenge

Grant Associates is now delivering Stage 1 of the masterplan that will pull Sheffield’s main university campus into a coherent and greener whole.

How do you make a university into a better piece of city? This was one of the challenges facing the University of Sheffield when it commissioned a masterplan to turn its 19th and 20th century assembly of buildings into a university fit for the 21st century.

It did this through collaboration, not only by having the design team working closely with the client, but with near seamless collaboration within the design team and also on the client side, where the university and the city have worked closely together.

‘The client group was composed mostly of representatives from the university but also from the city council,’ explained Keith French, director of Grant Associates. ‘This was unique and quite enlightened. The university recognised that it was an important part of the city.’

On its part, Grant Associates worked seamlessly with architect Feilden Clegg Bradley, a practice with which it has co-operated frequently before. ‘We went in on a total 50-50 relationship,’ Keith said. ‘We were jointly commissioned. This was not just about buildings or landscape but about the integrated improvement of the public realm.’

This approach was vital because of the unusual setting of the main campus of the university. It has a long thin footprint and, vitally, straddles the main ring road around the city, which effectively cuts it in half. The result was that communication within the campus was far from ideal and also, although there were some fine buildings, there was no coherent sense of place.

This was not the first investment that the university had made. Previous masterplans had focused on the built environment, with some well-regarded buildings resulting, but relatively little attention to the public realm. In terms of education, the university had excelled, becoming the Times Higher Education university of the year in 2011/12, commended particularly for its research and for the way that it is focused on the local community.

In 2014 it was voted number one in the THE Student Experience Survey, taking top places for its facilities, accommodation and students’ union. Nevertheless, the university was aware that it could do better. The lack of connectivity and of green space became of increasing importance as the rise in interdisciplinary working meant that students needed to move across the campus frequently and effectively. Students paying high fees have high expectations, and more informal and mobile ways of working mean that outdoor space can play an increasingly important role.

Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK, with more than 150 woodlands and 50 parks within its boundaries. (On another criterion, local paper the Star reported in March 2014 that Sheffield had been recognised as the greenest city in the world because it sent the lowest proportion of waste to landfill). So it was ironic that the university’s main campus should be so resolutely non green.

With all this in mind, the university set out four objectives for its masterplan. These were:
  • to manage growth within the university;
  • to radically improve the public realm and the civic spaces within the built environment;
  • to develop an integrative transport strategy which improves safety and enjoyment of our campus, whether walking, cycling or using public transport;
  • and, to make a positive contribution to the challenge of building, working and living in an environment which is more sustainable and has the least possible impact on the world’s finite resources.

The task was made more complex not only by the roads that were cutting through the campus, but also because much of the space between the buildings was occupied by car parking. The arts tower in particular, which had recently been refurbished and which houses both architecture and landscape architecture students, sat among a sea of cars. It would be necessary to build new car parks and this has had an effect on the phasing of the project.

Because so much of the scheme involved dealing with traffic, the team also worked with the traffic division of AECOM on the masterplan. The practice provided and analysed data to show that although the changes would slow the traffic down, they would not cause major hold-ups.

One of the main aims is to implement the travel plan that the university approved in 2013, to reduce its dependence on the car and to create a ‘modal shift’ towards other more sustainable means of transport. While this is exactly what one would have expected an intelligent masterplan to suggest, having the commitment already in place certainly smoothed the way.

Equally important is the creation of a new square that will be both a heart for the university and a new civic square for the city, largely surrounded by planned new university buildings.

Other main thrusts of the masterplan included the planting of forest-scale trees and the introduction of a SuDS approach, including linear channels and some urban rain gardens. More ambitious elements, such as storage ponds, are not included as there was not the space within the university’s curtilage for them. The university is also, Keith explained, putting in place a process of reviewing its planting and including some food plants in the mix.

There was already a target for green roofs, but the proportion of these will be increased on the new buildings. They will, of course, feed into the SuDS strategy.

‘At the heart of the masterplan,’ Keith French said, ‘is the commitment to improving and linking the public realm from east to west and creating improved streets and gardens, and helping to define the identity of the whole university quarter. At the moment you can be in the university quarter but you don’t really know it. The diversity of the buildings means that they don’t define the place, so you have to do it through the public realm.’

Grant Associates is now implementing the first phase of the masterplan, which is tackling the barrier of the ring road and introducing some shared space for cyclists and pedestrians. There will be three controlled crossings, all at grade, and the space for cars has been narrowed. There had to be some compromises. The mature street trees included in the centre of the road on the masterplan proved too difficult to introduce. This road also has a tram line running beneath it, and the services were just too complex to deal with.

This phase will also mark the beginning of the extension of Sheffield’s ‘gold route’ which connects key public spaces and squares within the city. It will now run through the campus and on to Weston Park, a large park and museum on the edge of the city.

This part of the work deals with the route running towards the arts tower but does not quite reach it – the arts tower surroundings cannot be tackled until the new multi-storey car park has been built and the parking removed. There is a hierarchy of paving which runs throughout the project, which is largely stone, and Grant Associates has raised planting by designing long concrete planting tables, in association with local artist David Appleyard.

Planting in this and further phases will benefit from the work that Grant Associates is doing, looking at the adaptability of plants in the face of climate change – at those that can cope with alterations not just in the range of temperatures but also in the pattern of rainfall. The practice is also selecting trees that are not subject to the panoply of diseases that are currently rife.

When you look at the masterplan that Grant Associates, FCB and AECOM have produced for the university the first impression is that it is all rather ... sensible. Anybody with an iota of sense would have shared the ambitions that this enshrines – greater connectivity, more green space, less dependence on the car, SuDS. It couldn’t be further from the grandstanding of Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, for which the practice is still best known, or for the quieter but exquisitely considered landscapes of the Arcadia development in Cambridge.

The achievement at Sheffield is less obvious, but it certainly is an achievement. There is a world of difference between knowing in broad terms what needs to be done, and actually achieving it. And, despite the fact that the first phase of development is not yet complete, there is a timescale and a commitment to realising this. That in itself is admirable since too many masterplans prove to be paper projects, gathering dust on a shelf.

Keith French said, ‘Some projects are about careful surgical interventions which are more understated but they just feel right. The real essence of this will come through in the detail, at the macro level. What is the form of the gulley? What is the stone? What are the seats made from?

‘We and FCB are very proud of the work. At a strategic level it works very well. We have for instance got the university and the city council to commit to quality standards. We enjoy working with FCB because they are very collaborative and have an empathy with the public realm.’

This quiet project will see a university that currently has a great reputation despite its public realm, transform into a greener more vibrant place that will both have its own strong identity and be an important and enjoyable part of the city. Lucky Sheffield.

Members of the University Masterplan Working Group

Terry Croft, director of operations
Andy Clayden, Department of Landscape
Eckart Lange, Department of Landscape
James Hitchmough, Department of Landscape
Fionn Stevenson, School of Architecture
Abdi Suleiman, former Students’ Union president
Alasdair Buckle, former Students’ Union president
Keith Lilley, director of estates and facilities management
Andy Fallon, head of estates development
Kay Green, space and strategy manager
David Caulfield, director of regeneration and development services Sheffield City Council 

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