The word around the Town Hall and over in the corridors at Victoria University is that Footscray is to become a university town. But what does that mean? Will everyone in Footscray be given an honorary degree? Will we all be studying at Little Saigon? What is a university town?
I asked the Maribyrnong Mayor, Grant Miles, to find out more.
“Imagine a situation where the boundaries between VU and Footscray are blurred – you can’t tell where the campus ends and the city begins. You can’t tell who’s a student and who’s a member of the general public. That to me is what a university town is all about,” said Grant.
VU and the Council are partners in this project. Both see stronger ties between the two entities as a way to build a platform that will enhance the lives of students, local business and arts organisations, and residents alike.
At a time when Footscray is rapidly changing, such a vision is essential if the area is to develop in a way that is sustainable, holistic and which maximizes the potential that the unique positioning of both the university and the town have to offer.
But this is no new fangled idea – the university town concept has been around for hundreds of years. Ancient European universities such as Oxford, Heidelberg and Sienna grew up in and around the cities they were founded in. In each instance, the identities, economies and the populations of town and institution became entwined, inseparable and stronger.
These days, the pace and growth of modern cities makes it much harder for such organic pairings to develop, but it is possible to consciously build that kind of relationship and that’s what VU and Council are set to do. Representatives from both organisations have been studying university town success stories such as Berkeley in San Francisco, the University of Washington in Seattle, and Columbia and Simon Fraser universities in Vancouver, in order to see what can be learnt and what might work in Footscray.
“It’s becoming more and more the norm that these, and other, overseas universities see the whole of the city they’re based in as their campus; they have no qualms about developing amenities which lie outside their grounds.
“They also welcome the general public onto campus offering them access to facilities such as rehearsal spaces, computer labs and sporting facilities,” said Grant.
The benefits of such thinking for both city and university are obvious –an open, inviting and welcoming locale centred around a campus which embraces and opens itself up to its community makes for a very attractive destination.
This reimagining of Footscray is already underway. VU is currently establishing a physical presence in the CBD which will feature, among other things, an art space, café and book shop. The university is also looking at ways to redesign both Footscray campuses so as to open them up to the public, and there are plans for dedicated bike paths and pedestrian zones running through the hear of the CBD linking both.
“We want the students, the business owners and the residents of Footscray to stay here once they’ve arrived each day. We want to see as many of VU’s 20,000 students and staff choosing to have lunch in a friendly, welcoming, tree-lined Wi-Fi-enabled Footscray CBD as they move between campuses.
“A vibrant city centre bookended by two open and welcoming campuses is our goal,” said Grant.
Importantly though, both the Council and VU see this as an open process that must include Footscray’s existing cultural, business and residential stakeholders.
“As Mayor I’m really proud of Footscray. We want to invite those who already have a stake in this community to come with us on this journey. This is not about the Council and the university imposing a vision on Footscray, it’s about us promoting, protecting and nurturing what we already have here and allowing it to grow.
“We’re also looking for buy in from corporations and larger tenants such as Grocon. We’re uniquely positioned geographically. We have a world-class university with excellent facilities, we’re very close to the centre of Melbourne and we have a vibrant bustling and rapidly developing multicultural hub. We think they’ll want to be part of this, that they’ll embrace the idea that by working together to improve public amenity in Footscray, we’re opening the city up,” said Grant.
Turning Footscray into a university town will take time. Both the council and VU see this a long-term open-ended project, but both are committed to following it through.
by John Weldon
Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at Victoria University
Learn more at footscrayunitown.com.au