Triple helix’ city-campus plan can galvanise CBD

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THE announcement earlier this week that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is prepared to back a new city-campus plan for the regeneration of the East London inner city region is good news for the city and the province.

Earlier in the year Mcibisi Jonas stated that the economic recovery of the Eastern Cape depended critically on the economic performance of the two metros.

The city-campus transformation project, initiated by the University of Fort Hare (UFH) institute of social and economic research, is just such an initiative. It aims to completely transform the way the inner city looks, functions and connects to the city and wider economy.

A good way to think about the project is in terms of the creation of an inner city “special development zone” dedicated to skills’ development, innovation and the knowledge-economy.

The location of the project will be on the notorious “sleeper site”, which is about to be transferred from Transnet to Buffalo City Metro (BCM). The latest definition of the land transfer suggests that more land than expected will be included in this deal. The amount of land involved is large by city centre standards as the site is equivalent to the size of the existing CBD.

In terms of existing plans for this land – and it is a plot of a million plans – the focus has been on “mixed use”. It is broadly agreed the land should not be devoted to a single function, like housing, or even the university. It should rather embrace multiple uses including civic, retail, commercial, residential and educational uses.

New development will require a traffic bypass system through the site to ease congestion in the Quigney.

In all existing plans the city has acknowledged that the university should be given its fair share of the land for new faculty development and student residences.

The main question has been how much land should the university get relative to other users once the transaction goes through?

The city has always been willing to promote the university. This is recognised in a 2008 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between BCM and the University of Fort Hare that commits both parties to work together to achieve a “high road” for the university in the inner city.

The MOU also states the need for the university to assist the city in developing a post-industrial, knowledge economy.

However, mixed land use is not in itself a development model. It can easily deliver a disconnected precinct with multiple tenants with different needs and requirements who have no relationship to each other.

The mixed use model requires the city to transact the land responsibly, to assert its right to the bits it wants and then ensure that there is sufficient bulk infrastructure to service the approved land-use allocations.

Simple mixed use is not the paradigm of the city-campus transformation project. It does not describe the way in which the university now imagines it’s involvement in the inner city regeneration.

Taking its cue from global debates, which stress the critical role of universities as “city builders” and “engines of growth”, the university has broadened its thinking beyond its own narrow sectional interests and moved away from a fragmented mixed use model to something more dynamic.

A key theme in international literature is how to get city universities to combine better with business and government and create a “new chemistry” that will drive innovation, engagement and economic growth.

It is agreed that this chemistry emerges in places where creative professionals in different fields interact and share knowledge in an engaged environment. Some scholars call it the “triple helix effect”.

It is UFH’s desire to create this “helix effect” – where the precinct becomes more than the sum of its parts – that has attracted the interest of Gordhan and his advisors, as well as the Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom.

What do they see in the new vision? First, they have responded positively to the proposed academic architecture, which includes a range of faculties and schools closely aligned to business and economic interests.

They embrace the idea of a business school, specialisations in marine science and coastal environmental studies, engineering and industrial design, as well as infrastructure studies, spatial planning and the built environment.

Other areas mentioned include health and sport science and service sectors, key issues of national interest and aligned to the NDP.

Second, they are impressed by the way the university is thinking “outside the box” in imagining integration in specialised “hubs” or “mini clusters” located in the inner city.

The new precincts could also potentially strengthen the research and development functions of the IDZ, which has plans for a “science park”.

Infrastructure development and agroprocessing are other areas where they see the university has a role to play, both in Alice and in East London.

The critical advantage of the East London CBD is that government, business and the university are already there, therefore uniquely positioned to implement a “triple helix” model.

The aim of the project, of course, will not be to distract the university from its primary focus as an institution of teaching and learning. The aim will be to augment that role through a partnerships model that develops the regional and national economy.

The academic credentials of UFH should not be underestimated. The university produced over 50 PhDs at this month’s graduation ceremony, many in the field of science, and it has an impressive and increasing academic output of peer reviewed scientific journal articles, which have been growing at a rate of 20% per annum over the past five years. It would also not be wise to underestimate the potential power of the Fort Hare brand in Africa in the decades to come.

For the project to move forward, it is now necessary for local stakeholders to show the same enthusiasm and commitment to the project as we see at national level. While local partners from business, to some in the city, to provincial government are supportive, –the next step should be to populate the plan with the added detail that will attract direct investment.

While the university and the state can lay the foundation for success, the real test of the project will rest on the extent to which private capital is prepared to invest in the different districts and hubs.

The promise of a renewed city centre, attached to the existing lifestyle appeal of East London, could attract skills back to the city and change the future outlook.

Fort Hare, which turns 100 years old in two years time, is articulating a unique city campus development model for the new century ahead.

The vision articulated strongly embraces the “high road” imagined in its agreement with BCM. What remains to be seen is whether we have the collective capacity to implement this vision.

By Leslie Bank

Leslie Bank is professor and director at the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economy Research

Article Source: The Daily Dispatch