By Zoë Johnson and Paula von Krosigk.
The city of Oxford is a city divided. Wandering through the alleys of this ‘city of dreaming spires’ one cannot help but notice that, despite its beauty, the city’s streetscapes are dominated by boundaries — high stone walls, unsurpassable by those who do not hold University identification. These walls are a physical manifestation of longstanding discursive and socio-economic divides that define the relationship between the city and the university that dominates it.
As urbanists, we find it difficult not to notice how inequalities in Oxford are encoded in the public sphere, and how architecture becomes a medium through which power can be communicated and uncritically accepted (Lamb, 2014). We — students from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, both newcomers to this divided city — were brought together by a desire to engage across the boundaries that dominate our experiences of urban space and sociality in Oxford. We were trying to make sense of the stark socio-economic divides around us, in a city so blatantly marked by both opulence and impoverishment.
Within the walls of our respective institutions, we discuss issues of urban inequality, but Oxford – the city where we reside – remains remarkably absent from these conversations. Students from around the globe flock to Oxford to ostensibly ‘live’ here for a few years, but their experiences of the city are very often distinct from those of most locals. Local residents remain largely excluded from the ‘magical’ gardens and ‘magnificent’ libraries cloistered within colleges and university buildings.
We wondered what would it look like to embody some of the values of sustainable urbanism – which we spend so much of our time thinking about in reference to cities elsewhere – on a local scale. In particular we were interested in issues of participation and community building, and the provision and equitable use of public space. As new and temporary residents, what role can we play in disrupting the town-gown divide? Passionate about placemaking, a strategy for collectively reimagining and reinventing public spaces through small interventions, we began thinking through how this concept could be used by students in Oxford. In order to bridge the divide, however, it became necessary to define it.
We see the ‘town-gown divide’ as encompassing many layers and facets of power in its discursive and material manifestations. In Oxford, the issues of soaring rents, astronomical housing prices, and poor living conditions are widely discussed; as are the problems associated with university ranking systems and the embeddedness of classism and racism in UK educational institutions. These issues are not always explored in a manner that captures the dynamic interrelations between them, yet the town-gown divide does just that: it provides an analytical lens through which such connections can be productively examined. It is only with an appreciation of the complex discourse and power relations entrenched within, and sustained by the University, that we can begin to understand the mechanisms through which the University maintains its power and perpetuates inequality.
In Oxford, colleges dominate the land market. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that Oxbridge colleges collectively own more land than the Church of England, with a portfolio of properties across the UK worth £3.5 billion (The Guardian, 2018). While there is no public record of the exact amount of land owned by Oxford colleges, the strength of their influence on the local housing market is nonetheless evident.
The University and its colleges own dozens of unoccupied buildings around the city. One such building was the former Volkswagen garage, owned by Wadham College, which for two months in 2017 was lived in by squatters, driven by their desperation for shelter and desire to draw attention to the extreme inequalities in the city. (“People need homes, empty spaces need people,” proclaimed an enormous banner hung in front of the building at the time.) Though on its website the college claims to be “profoundly sympathetic towards the homeless in Oxford,” (Wadham College, 2017), it nevertheless proceeded to demolish the temporary shelter in the middle of winter the same year. Wadham have started developing 135 students flats on the Iffley Road site, which will not include space for local community members or social housing units (BBC, 2017).
The development of the Wolvercote Paper Mill site is yet another example of the University’s power and impact on Oxford’s housing market. In 2016, different developers – including Homes for Oxford, an alliance of community-led housing groups – bid to developing 190 new housing units on the site. Homes for Oxford’s proposal – which had wide community support (OCF, 2016) – was for a community land trust composed of residents, local villagers, and professional experts to manage the housing project. This would have created a much-needed community-led alternative housing model within Oxford’s over-inflated market. Yet the University rejected the credible bid, instead awarding the project to the highest bidder, a private developer called CALA, whose plan for the site does not come close to matching the social benefits which a community land trust could have delivered (CALA, 2019).
As Oxford geography professor Danny Dorling suggested in The Oxford Magazine, it is high time that the University try to understand the extent to which it has contributed to making Oxford “the most unaffordable [city] to live in the UK, having the tightest of greenbelts, having one of the most divided school systems in Europe, and suffering from a health divide between Oxford’s neighbourhoods that has grown so widely in recent decades,” (Dorling, 2018). The development on the Wolvercote Paper Mill site is one example of how the University’s profit-motivation aggravates the housing market, making Oxford unaffordable for its own inhabitants.
Discourses around knowledge production legitimate power dynamics which enable the University’s control over the city and its housing market. According to its Strategic
Plan 2018-23, the University of Oxford’s vision is to act in ways which “benefit society on a local, regional, national and global scale,” (University of Oxford, 2018). By constructing an image of themselves as the benevolent creators of knowledge which can be used for ‘social good,’ the University effectively attempts to de-politicise the process of knowledge production. Furthermore, by constructing the academy as the singular source of knowledge, the institution is afforded authority over those who remain outside of it. And yet, knowledge production is anything but apolitical, and universities – especially in their current profit-motivated and ‘meritocratic’ manifestation – are far from benevolent.
The deep entanglements of knowledge and power have been vastly studied and theorised. Western academia for instance, valorises specific kinds of knowledge, and implicitly devalues non-academic, and non-Western epistemologies and ways of thinking. These academic discourses reify and perpetuate existing power relations. For
example, the ‘Facts and Figures’ page on the University of Oxford’s website boasts the institution’s first place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) (University of Oxford, 2019). The titles of ‘Best’ and ‘Oldest in the English-Speaking World’, serve to bolster the University’s prestige, contributing to its construction as
a symbol of success and icon of elite academia. This is in turn used to attract students from all over the world, to justify the extortionate fees, and perpetuates the ‘town-gown divide’.
Ranking systems create competition between universities – and, in turn, the cities and countries where they are located – which has material consequences for the institutions and the people within and around them. Money is funnelled to top ranked universities whose students, despite the so-called ‘meritocratic’ application process, tend to be the children of the well-off. In this way, social inequality and stratification within university systems is exacerbated. Furthermore, symbols of the racial and colonial violence that was – and in many ways still is – instrumental to the (re)production of this institution serve to make those who do not fit the model of white, cisgender male feel as if they do not belong. These discourses have material consequences for people living in Oxford, particularly the city’s most marginalised, because they justify the immense accumulation of wealth and power by the University of Oxford and its collegiate, even when it comes at the detriment of the
city and its inhabitants.
But what does it really mean to be the ‘Best in the World’? The THE ranking system has been criticised for its English language, regional, and hard-science biases (European University Association, 2011). These biases reinforce top universities’ commitment to maintaining Western onto-epistemological and economic supremacy and sustaining narratives that positions white, cisgender males as superior, rational, autonomous (the proper subjects of knowledge), and the radicalised gendered others as inferior, irrational, affectable (the objects of knowledge) (Stein & de Oliveira Andreotti, 2017). We also see this reflected in mainstream urban theory, which usually frames cities in the Global North as the model, and cities in the Global South as areas in need of improvement (Roy, 2009). The fact that many of the discussions about urbanity that take place in Oxford concern places outside, rather than the ways in which such issues are manifested in our own city, is another case in point.
“We have a responsibility to engage beyond the boundaries of the University and to remember our membership to a larger urban community.”
As students overwhelmed by the experience of living in a new place, the intense course load, and the abundance of opportunities to engage within university spaces, it is easy to forget that we are living parallel to a community who was here before we arrived and who will be here long after we leave. Perhaps as temporary residents, it is not our place to say what this city needs; however, as members of the educational institutions housed here, which play a pivotal role in the (re)production of inequalities in this divided city, we do have a responsibility to engage beyond the boundaries of the University and to remember our membership to a larger urban community.
Placemaking is one tool which we have found useful in approaching this challenge, as students with a desire to address the ‘town-gown divide.’ Placemaking has to do with creating a sense of place in public spaces. As Erin Toolis, a scholar at UC Santa Cruz explains, placemaking is done through facilitating opportunities for dialogue, revealing the ways in which public space is socially constructed, recovering plural histories, and raising important social issues (Toolis, 2017). Placemaking extends learning beyond the realm of formal education, transforming public places into spaces of everyday learning, and seeking to venerate all community members as both teachers and students.
Placemaking events — such as the Think Micro project in Izmir, Turkey which built small floating parks, allowing people to interact with their waterfront in new ways, the Mmofra Place project in Accra, Ghana which saw the transformation of a two-acre plot of underutilised green space into a space for play, or Park(ing) Day, an annual urban festival during which parking spots in cities around the world are transformed into temporary parklets — have served to strengthen the connections between people and the cities they share (Project for Public Spaces, 2018).
Placemaking is both hands-on approach and an overarching idea, meaning that it can extend beyond the organisation of specific projects and be adopted as a state of mind, enacted in the way that we inhabit and move through public spaces. For students, this means remaining conscious of our place within the community, taking opportunities to engage with and learn from residents beyond the University’s walls, and advocating for a more just and equitable system of land management by the University and its colleges. These ideas can be enacted through everyday actions – for example talking to a stranger, getting to know your neighbours, installing a little free library or a community message board on your street – or through participation in initiatives such as Open House on Little Clarendon Street.
Open House’s interactive exhibition on housing and homelessness and radical housing library are free and open to anyone, and their public living room provides a unique opportunity for people from all walks of life to hang out together. Open House has a lineup of great events which creates space for explorations of community-led collaborative approaches to tackling housing and homelessness which engage with rough sleepers, students, experts, activists, and everyone else (Open House Oxford, 2018).
While placemaking alone is not sufficient for overcoming the vast structural inequalities Oxford faces, it provides an opportunity to disrupt discourses which function to exclude the bodies and histories of some community members. Placemaking can serve as a reminder that the physical structures and social relations of public space are not static, natural, or eternal but are in fact dynamic, unfinished, and transformable. Placemaking might allow for re-imagining a more equitable Oxford, shining light through the stone walls that before seemed so impervious.
Zoë is MPhil student in Development Studies at the University of Oxford Department of International Development. Paula is a BSc student in urban and regional planning at the Technical University of Berlin. She studied at Oxford Brookes University for two semesters through Erasmus.
Artwork by Violetta Suvini.