It was the best decision of my life.
After three uncomfortable years in the trades I enrolled in school with visions of the post-secondary life that was to follow: crossing manicured lawns with books tucked under my arms during that perpetual autumn that exists on campus grounds, according to every movie ever made about college. Then I arrived at MacEwan University, first at its bright orange Centre for Arts and Communication building on the west side, then its central campus after my program was moved there the following year. Needless to say, neither had the sprawling quads and the centuries-old trees that shaded Matt Damon and Robin Williams.
Having spent my entire life on an acreage north of Edmonton, I hated going downtown as a kid and I especially hated commuting there as a student—too many people, too many cars. But a strange thing happened not long after clutching my first pair of apartment keys: I started growing attached to the city centre—and the city itself.
Universities of old act like pseudo-cities. They’re self-contained, not just with their own roads but their own housing and commerce, so students can live comfortably on campus 24/7. That’s a far cry from the student life experienced by me and 30,000 others commuting to downtown’s 10 post-secondaries. But as these colleges expand and their student populations explode, could it soon be the standard model for higher learning? And how might that reshape central Edmonton and students like me?
According to the Downtown Business Association, 50,000 students will call downtown home by 2020. It’s easy to see what that prediction is based on. MacEwan University’s new art campus, opening in 2017, will complete the years-long unification of its three fractured schools. Norquest College is also consolidating its five campuses, into two side-by-side towers, while hoping to expand its student body by 2,000 annually. And a decade after it saved the Hudson’s Bay building from demolition, the University of Alberta is trying to build a new home for the Department of Music and Department of Art & Design attached to the ambitious Galleria proposal. Naturally, their tuition-payers will want to live nearby.
It seems that all post-secondaries today want to be city-builders as much as citizen-builders, a trend playing out in cities across the continent. Ryerson University has completely reshaped—and continues to reshape—major sections of downtown Toronto.
It’s a similar story at the University of Winnipeg, Capilano in Vancouver, Concordia in Montreal, New York University in Manhattan and Brooklyn. After centuries of isolating themselves from cities, post-secondaries are becoming one with them.
Early this summer, MacEwan president David Atkinson was at Oxford University for professional development. As he walked down its streets, lined with 12th Century trees and venerable architecture, he took notice of the tall walls fortressing the alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Margaret Thatcher. “Inevitably they have a very tiny entrance and there are two signs,” recalls Atkinson. “One is ‘Visitors Not Welcome,’ and the second, ‘Stay Off the Grass.’” He shakes his head. “That model of higher education is dead. It’s truly dead.”
Atkinson explains that the model of locking away educational facilities is going extinct. More frequently universities, for reasons of development or financing, for instance, are becoming entwined into the communities surrounding them. If done well, it can bolster both the school and the community.
In 1991, when MacEwan broke ground on the old CN Rail yards (artifices of which are still being uncovered during the latest excavation east of Oliver Square), many wondered aloud if it was a sensible thing to do, says Atkinson, who became president in 2011. “And who would have thought that now it’s actually in the epicentre of all this activity?” he asks. “We couldn’t be better located.”
No doubt, student life will be different after the estimated $4 billion downtown makeover is complete and many thousands more students come for higher education. But a major issue arises when addressing the problem of where these students will be housed. After all, how can you create campus life if the majority of your students live in scattered pockets across the city?
After building a 13-floor, 800-plus unit residence in 2005, MacEwan has taken the unusual step of letting private developers offer the solution. The Horizon, a four-storey off-campus building just behind of the university, houses 311 students in 114 very affordable dorm-style suites. Meanwhile the vintage Healy Ford building between MacEwan and Norquest will soon be transformed into a trio of towers, each with a few floors mimicking standard residencies that centre a two- or three-room pod with common kitchens and washrooms.
Atkinson says it’s a godsend for landlocked postsecondary institutions. “We’re not going to use the valuable land to build residences. We’re going to use that for core activity, which is our academic programming.”
A rich campus life can’t just be measured in housing and academia. Students will want places in between their classrooms and dorms to mobilize their social lives, whether they be cafes, quick-service restaurants or large-capacity bars, all of which are emerging in spades in an area that Norquest College has self-designating the “Education District.”
Gord Rajewski, director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, believes the sudden influx of youth will be a huge driving force in making downtown a destination spot for entertainment and hospitality.
For decades, businesses have catered to the office crowd, but, says Rajewski, “The impact of three educational institutions expanding in the downtown core is that we have more people, more opportunity for retail, more opportunity to expose young people to the benefits of being downtown.”
But isn’t there something to miss about the traditional campus model that Atkinson declared dead?
A constant cross-pollination of learners and professors sows an environment rich with intellectual discourse and discovery, all of it largely governed around youthful idealism. However, “the benefits of being downtown,” as Rajewski calls it, can’t be overlooked either. As a student, you’re smack dab in the heartbeat of the city, getting a sense of the local conditions you’ll graduate into, while milling about with people in the midst of a career that you might be pining for. The career that you dedicated four years of your life to. And being amongst them helps foster professional relationships, according to Jodi Abbott, the president of Norquest College.
These commuter campuses, she says, avail her students work opportunities beyond what instructors and administration can facilitate. “[Students] are part of the community, rather than in the box doing their education,” explains Abbott. “What it allows them is a transition into work that is a little more natural because they are already in the community.”
These institutions are also trying to integrate their students with what Abbott calls “community-engaged learning,” wherein schools partnerwith specific employers supplying internships. In this scenario, downtown isn’t just a backdrop, but an incubator for students. This could be the thread that ties a student to Edmonton, what keeps him or her here, degree in hand, instead of returning home or job-hunting elsewhere.
But the relationship between school and city, student and community, are symbiotic. Post-secondaries wishing to integrate themselves within urban areas must also contribute amenities, services and infrastructure to the others around them. We see that in MacEwan’s funding of a community rink abutting the new arena, as well as the forthcoming arts centre’s three theatres, art gallery and studio spaces that will be accessible to the public. Norquest’s contribution is a planned park with an expansive lawn punctuated by benches; it will be owned by the college but open to the public.
And then there’s the Galleria project. Although it’s not without its controversies over public financing and whether a 1,000-seat opera house is even sustainable, one can’t ignore the obvious: the University of Alberta, once a model of secluded campus life, wants to place an iconic structure 500 metres from city hall. “Having a university presence in the downtown really contributes to city-building,” says U of A president David Turpin. “It brings people downtown, it supports mixed-use development where you have an increase in the number of people living downtown, working downtown and studying downtown.”
Turpin, who’s been on the job since July, acknowledges that students at the Galleria would have a different experience than those lounging in quad across the river. “They would be closely aligned with the arts community, they would be interacting with theater companies and productions that would be happening in the city.”
But, I ask him, will these music and theatre undergrads miss out on something their engineering, sciences and law counterparts won’t—that romantic campus life, the trees, the student elections, the protests, the rowdy parties? Will they just become just another face in the downtown crowds?
He chuckles and reminds me that the new LRT and planned pedway will in essence keep the campuses linked—all of them, MacEwan, Norquest, NAIT, the University of Alberta—and, thus, link the students as well. Besides, he adds, “It takes less time to get downtown from the U of A main campus than it takes to walk across the campus of many major Canadian universities.”
Student Survival Guide
Are you one of the many migratory students getting settled in Oliver and Downtown this fall? We’ve got your back. Follow these tips for cheap eats, rides and stress-reliefs.
Apps to Live By
POGO CARSHARE: Tuition cutting into your prospects of car ownership? One of the perks of living in Edmonton’s inner cities is this car-share. It’s insanely simple. Sign up, add a credit card, use your phone to find the nearest car, walk there and boom—you got yourself some wheels.
STREET FOOD EDMONTON: If the spice of life is variety, then the spice of downtown Edmonton is affordable quality food. This app is like a divining rod for the city’s rich mobile food scene, peddling whatever you like—vegan, greasy spoon or something in between—just a short walk from where you’re standing.
TRANSIT APP: It makes public transit easy by automatically pinpointing where you are and guiding you to the nearest bus stop or train station. The arrival times are accurate nearly to the second, so you can gauge whether to walk, jog or sprint for dear life. It works on both Android and Apple.
Your Next Beer Run
BREWSTERS: Do you know what a growler is? It’s a big ol’ jug of beer. Now who doesn’t want a jug of craft beer? Refill it anytime for as little as $14, or just $11 on Saturdays before 5pm.
OLIVER SQUARE LIQUOR DEPOT: You’ll be happy to know it’s open late—till 2am most nights—when you need that 1:53am nightcap after putting the finishing touches on the essay due in seven hours.
THE COMMON: One wouldn’t think of this sleek place known for gourmet food and craft cocktails is also known for cheap beers. That’s because a magical thing happens on Thursday: $4 pints, even on beers you normally couldn’t afford.
Quick, Easy & Nonviolent Stress Relief
FOOD WISH DISHES: Sometimes you need the strong stuff—we’re talking kittens. When school gets too real, head in the direction of 124th street and go cuddle a purr monster at this doggy food bakery and pet shop.
DENIZEN HALL: Sometimes violence is the answer—so long as it’s simulated. Shoot down zombies or rough up ninjas at this arcade bar with the tokens that came with your drinks.
THE (OTHER) LIBRARY: Don’t worry—we know more books are the last things you need. Juice up on mindless binge-watching at Edmonton Public Library’s flagship, the Stanley Milner. It has a dizzying array of DVD box-sets. But if you’d rather not put on pants, punch in the number on your (free) library card online for access to online streaming services like Hoopla and Indieflix.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that MacEwan University Residence opened in 2004; that it has 14 floors; and that MacEwan contracted the Horizon to develop the Horizon, a private residence that isn’t affiliated with the university in any way. We regret the errors.