Portland: What the f*** is going on?

Upon returning to Nottingham in September, University Park Campus had become a building site. Green has become grey. Open access has become fences and scaffolding. Wires are hanging from the ceiling and seemingly everything has moved location. These are the effects of a long term redevelopment project for the Portland Building which began in 2013. Although the effects of this project are clear to be seen in the physical transformations on campus, the purpose and story behind these developments is more obscure. Hopefully the following will provide some clarification…

In July 2014, the Students’ Union embarked on a research project in association with Crowd DNA to assess current opinions regarding the Portland Building and its operation as a successful Students’ Union. This research emerged from discussions the Officer team engaged in with senior University staff concerning practical ways the Portland Building could be improved to provide a better environment for students. After visiting Sheffield and Leeds Students’ Unions to exemplify the potential of the Portland Building, a £15 million project was confirmed for the transformation of the University’s Students’ Union.

“In actuality, the Portland redevelopments are, largely, intuitive and practical”

The project encompasses four phases of developments, the first three of which are well underway. Each phase includes a number of features, such as:

  • The Studio Live (September 2015), designed largely to fulfil the flexible aspect as a multipurpose adaptable space
  • Mooch terrace and peace garden (October 2016), designed to fulfil the social aspect
  • Theatre gardens (October 2016)
  • The big screen and front entrance to Portland extended (November 2016)
  • Portland Coffee Co. (September 2017)

These changes may appear random and unrelated, however they adhere to the wider aims of the redevelopment which emerged from the research. The research discovered that time in the Portland Building was largely functional, with students using the building to fulfil specific tasks rather than as a location on campus to socialise. It was felt that campus “lacked a focal point for student-ownership and socialisation”. In addition, students indicated that the layout of the building was illogical with dissimilar services positioned near to each other. Accordingly, the Portland redevelopment adopted three main aims:

  1. Social – a place to spend time, meet friends, learn, as well as relax, clearly separate from other areas of the buildings and campus
  2. Flexible – planned but organic, easy to change areas and rooms to meet the needs of students
  3. Functional – a zoned building to encourage flow, providing the relevant technological support (not a focal point)

“The lack of communication…has resulted in many students feeling excluded or ignorant as to their purpose”

These overall aims of the project appear valid and useful, however the lack of clarification on the purpose of the Portland redevelopment breeds confusion and despondency. It exasperates the sentiment that students have a lack of control, fuelling the idea that changes occur without consultation or adequate planning. In actuality, the Portland redevelopments are, largely, intuitive and practical.

“They must provide us with knowledge”

However, the general feeling is that there is a lack of communication and lack of easily accessible information regarding the redevelopments has resulted in many students feeling excluded or ignorant as to their purpose or progress. Many students will not take the time to actively research the project, and so simply ensuring that the plans for the redevelopment are distributed around the Portland Building and campus in general, for example, would be a step towards ensuring students feel more informed.

Considering the initial research for the project was completed in 2014, and the student population and environment may have altered dramatically since then, renewed consultation with students took place in October 2017 to assess the progress of the developments. In order to encourage transparency and ensure students are informed, hopefully the results of these student consultations will be published and disseminated.

“Regular updates should be issued, acknowledging delays if necessary”

The difficulty with long term projects such as this in a university environment is the short term perspective of students. The average student spends three years at The University of Nottingham, meaning that with a four year project many students may never actually see its completion, heightening the sense that the construction has been unending and useless. However, this is an unavoidable problem for long term developments in a university environment. The gradual completion of the Portland redevelopment has at least ensured that aspects of it can be enjoyed even as the project continues.

“Many of the ideas…actually appear useful and well considered”

To emphasise, many of the ideas enshrined within the Portland redevelopment actually appear useful and well considered. Upon completion it is likely to ensure that the building is more functional and is able to operate as a focal point for students on campus, enhancing the student experience. Hopefully, through research of their own or with more widespread promotion of the project’s aims, students will understand the advantages of the developments and welcome the changes to campus.

Eleanor Gray

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article claimed that the last communication from the Student’s Union regarding the Portland redevelopment had been in July. This was inaccurate as the last record of communication from the University was actually in late September.

There has also been communication through emails and the SU has opened a page directly for the purpose of keeping students up-to-date with the Portland redevelopment as well as the Estates page offering communication.

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Image courtesy of Char on Flickr


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