Center For London Essays On Education

Educational environments are integral to effective learning and safe, healthy, and sustainable cities. So why has the science of designing them been overlooked for so long?

Essay 02: Clare Melhuish and Alexi Marmot

Real Estate Institute / Global Centre for Learning Environments

The Bartlett’s 2016 Research Exchange was held at the UCL Institute of Education and marked a significant step forward in bringing together researchers across UCL to consider spatial and design issues linked to the provision of education.

It underscored the vital contribution that education makes to unlocking solutions to the world’s most pressing issues and the increasing demand for academic and applied knowledge to guide real-world investment in educational environments. 

The Bartlett already hosts a wealth of valuable work in this field across its different schools and institutes. Since 2006, it has produced some 50 published articles relating to the design, management and impact of learning environments and 10 architectural design projects per year. However, because of the dispersed and distributed nature of the research and teaching across the faculty, this expertise is under-recognised, and has not been actively promoted. This gap prompted Professor Alexi Marmot to conceive the new Bartlett Global Centre for Learning Environments. Urban Lab’s Clare Melhuish organised a Town Hall meeting in March 2017 and the Centre is now underway. 

Education provision and the environments that support it are inextricably linked to rapid population and urban expansion and the growth of knowledge-and-technology-based economies. They are recognised as vital to combating rising inequality – which can lead to conflict and tension – and providing learners over their lifetimes with the range of skills needed to adapt to accelerating social and economic change. Educational environments are also key drivers for the creation of new and regenerated, safe, healthy and sustainable urban spaces, which foster quality of life, civic participation, social interaction and opportunities for innovation.  

UCL Grand Challenges has placed these issues at the core of the university’s activities and impact. UCL continues to be actively engaged in developing exemplary new educational facilities framed by the dual agenda of providing top-quality educational opportunities and outcomes for students at secondary and tertiary levels, and wider community benefits through outreach, engagement, widening access, and sustainable physical regeneration. Examples of this are the UCL Academy, Here East, UCL East, as well as the new and refurbished buildings in Bloomsbury.

“This lack of research-based knowledge continues despite the value of the UK education estate being estimated to be around £28bn for higher education alone”

Evidence-based guidance in this field is in short supply and constantly in demand. In 2004, the architect and CABE Commissioner Emeritus the late Richard Feilden noted that “the science of designing learning environments, is currently remarkably under-developed”. In a Design Council literature review on the impact of school environments the authors observed that “the first thing that will strike you... is the relative paucity of research on effective learning environments” (1). This lack of research-based knowledge continues, despite the value of the UK education estate being estimated to be around £28bn for higher education alone; and new annual capital investment of £3-4bn for higher education and £4.5bn for schools (2).

The Bartlett Global Centre for Learning Environments will be ideally situated to provide a focus for existing and expanding specialist knowledge, within The Bartlett and across the university, that is fundamentally multi-disciplinary and far-reaching in its implications beyond academia. It will provide not only the opportunity to co-ordinate, frame and communicate this knowledge within a context of academic excellence, combining a high level of theoretical and practical understanding based on rigorous empirical research, but also, crucially, to disseminate and translate it effectively into the public domain.

Over the next decade and beyond, the Centre will take a lead in driving the research agenda in this field. It will also play a key role in shaping public policy and practice in the UK and overseas relating to the design, provision and management of educational estates and learning environments, firmly located within an understanding of wider urban issues and spatial challenges. 


  1. The impact of school environments: a literature review (Higgins et al., University of Newcastle, Centre for Learning and Teaching, 2005).
  2. Higher Education Estates Statistics Report (AUDE, 2015) quoted in Capital Funding for Schools (National Audit Office, 2017, p.4)

Dr Clare Melhuish is a Senior Research Associate and Co-director of UCL Urban Laboratory.

Dr Alexi Marmot is Professor of Facility and Environment Management and Director of The Bartlett Global Centre for Learning Environments.

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