Creating a university town

John Weldon finds out how Footscray will be transformed into a university town.

‘Footscray University Town’ is an intriguing concept. As a phrase it suggests a vibrant and prosperous city with learning at its heart; a place where culture, commerce and scholarship are woven together seamlessly. It evokes feelings of openness and of creativity, of confidence and of innovation.

A university town is a place with a strong, yet diverse, identity, a city and a university united in thought and action, direction and vision.

But it is also a process. It is a way of learning and evolving that involves a great deal of introspection and deliberation, consultation and imagination. It is an intangible feeling, a vibe. It is not buildings, although infrastructure renewal is a part of it. It is not a series of talks and planning sessions, although it requires a great deal of thought and discussion if it is to succeed.

In essence it is a change in perception: in self-awareness. For Maribyrnong City Council and Victoria University it is a recognition and reinforcement of the existing links between both institutions and the city of Footscray and a commitment to building stronger, more community-focused bonds in future.

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The world’s ancient university towns – think Oxford, Heidelberg or Bologna, for example, developed organically and over many hundreds of years. More recent examples such as Berkeley or Princeton are the result of decades of conscious creation and curation.

The Footscray University Town concept, however, is just 12 months old. So we find ourselves at the beginning of a journey. In many ways we do not know where this road will take us or what might develop as we progress, but we do have an idea of what we might like to achieve along the way.

‘Traditionally the two Victoria University Footscray campuses bookended the CBD,’ says Victoria University spokesperson Jane Burrows. ‘But like bookends they weren’t part of the city. They were open to students and to staff but not to residents or to business.

‘What we want to do is remodel them, so that they merge into Footscray. Rather than bookends we want them to become doorways.’

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There are plans to renew the Mills Close entrance to the Footscray Park campus so that rather than being separate from the park and the river the campus will meld with and be a gateway to both.

‘There are excellent sporting facilities on that campus, there’s a library, rehearsal spaces, computer labs, cafes and artworks. We want the people of Footscray to see these as theirs, and by opening the campus up we hope to make it easier for them to do so,’ Jane continues.

A ‘creative industries hub’, which aims to provide work spaces for creative businesses and practitioners, is planned for the Nicholson Street Campus.

Art companies and cultural organisations often struggle to find spaces in which to base themselves. Victoria University hopes that this hub and other initiatives will allow them to work with such groups and perhaps trade space for expertise; access to facilities in exchange for master classes.

‘We also have academic staff expert, in arts, business, science, law and sports. We hope to be able to make use of their expertise through consultative and other partnerships with local enterprises and schools.’

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There are also plans to open up the city to the university by creating bike paths and pedestrian walk ways through Footscray linking the train station and the campuses. There will be increased car parking facilities and both Council and Victoria University are advocating for improved public transport options such as bus and tram superstops.

Victoria University is looking at ways in which their students and staff might be encouraged to see Footscray as their space through the provision of free WiFi and the identification of spaces in which they might socialise and study off campus.

In this vein, the university will be opening ‘Metro West’ in December of this year in the heart of Footscray. This will be a hybrid of public space and campus offering hot desk access to the general public, pop up markets, an exhibition space, a rolling series of seminars and presentations, a bookshop and a cafe.

Footscray is changing rapidly. The number of arts organisations and galleries based in the city is growing (as is the number of cool burger joints!) Residential and business development and investment is moving apace. Victoria University is planning to build accommodation for 500 students.

‘We want people to see Footscray as edgy, arty, exciting but also safe and accessible. The university town project aims to create an environment in which that can happen,’ said Jane.

by John Weldon
Freelance Writer
Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at Victoria University

Read more: Univercity – what is a university town?

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