Learning Places Build Communities

Written By

Finbarr O’Dempsey

3.3.2021 Thinking

Without even leaving my desk I managed to attend three seminars at last week’s Learning Places Scotland digital conference. If there was a theme unifying the presentations, it was the idea that education spaces do much more than provide space for teaching and learning. 


On Monday I listened to Clare Mulholland of Queen’s University Belfast, Nada Milivojevic and Jim Mulholland of Todd Architects discuss their Knowledge Transfer Partnership into the question of how education spaces contribute to emotional and social well-being. Looking at schools across North Belfast and their role as a common platform to bring divided communities together had a special resonance for this Belfast child of the 80s, long resident in Glasgow but temporarily relocated to my childhood home for lockdown. Clare eloquently described their framework for assessing schools’ role in both micro and macro social interactions, daily interactions that bind a community together. Nada referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs as the basis for assessing how education spaces can support well-being in their users. She stressed the importance of places where children feel safe and secure, able to interact and build relationships with their peers, that then allow them to build confidence for project-based learning in flipped classrooms that take the teacher off the stage. The examples from Todd’s portfolio emphasised the social spaces that have become a familiar part of most new school buildings, but Jim reminded us of the challenge in getting these through ‘the rulebook’ of net to gross areas. 

My colleague Karen Pickering presented some examples from our own portfolio, the extension to George Watson’s Junior School that humanises an intimidating building with open plan spaces, our architecture department for Northumbria University that interlinks open plan studios to encourage peer learning and freedom to roam and finally our recently completed Wellbeing Centre for University of Edinburgh. Originally a short-term investment to temporarily rehouse student counselling and disability services, the refurbishment of Morris and Steedman’s brutalist Bristo Square building has been so successful it has now become a beacon for a ‘retrofirst’ approach and saved the building from planned future demolition. Peeling back the layers covering the top-lit atrium within has revealed a social environment fit for today’s student needs when softened with new lightwells, a muted colour palette and an accessible entrance. 

Tuesday’s agenda was about sustainability and was a joint effort from Space Strategies and Sheppard Robson focused on the Barony campus in Cumnock for East Ayrshire Council. The case for multi-service community hubs providing more economically sustainable services was well-made by Kirstine Robinson of Space Strategies. She emphasised the importance of consultation, defining boundaries and getting the access points in the right place if they are to succeed. Sheppard Robson’s interlinked brick pavilions along the shared spine of the impressive Barony campus does a good job in giving civic presence to this important community facility straddling the river at the edge of the town. The scale and range of facilities is impressive and no doubt will be buzzing with kids again as the return to campus rolls out. 

Finally, on Friday I heard about South Ayrshire Council’s ambitious Ayr town centre project. Triggered by the relocation of Ayr Academy to BDP’s new building out of town, that left two former school buildings looking for new uses, this tale has a happy endingEncouragingly the council got stuck in to find new uses for these heritage buildings with a town centre plan to create a culture hub around one and use the other as a new home for Ayr Grammar Primary School, an early learning centre, community arts centre and archive. The generous scale of the Victorian spaces provides an enviable civic grandeur to the new primary school, with a 21st century interior refit making smaller nooks, steps and alcoves for the primary children to colonise. Considered removal of later additions and opening a connection to South Harbour Street make this an education space truly embedded in the life of the town.  

The most poignant presentation of the week though had to be from Douglas Hutchison of South Ayrshire Council, the new community hub at Wallacetown cost only £100k but the effect on the community has already been impressive. Converting two underused rooms in the primary school to a community hub has given local people a place to gather and access council services in a friendly environment. Building on the community ties that schools nurture, the new space provides support and refuge. It is a space to organise shopping lists for those in need, build confidence for those seeking work and support those in need of help to conquer drug and alcohol problems. 


While social distancing remains with us, we need these spaces that bind and build our communities more than ever.  

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