There is considerable debate regarding the contribution to be made by higher education institutions and the researchers they employ in realising environmentally sustainable urban spaces, and the relationship between academic research and lay knowledge. Drawing on previous work, the paper identifies roles that may be played by academic researchers in building sustainable urban locations. Adopting a focus on sub-city scale phenomena the paper illustrates how the roles played are affected by structural and non-structural factors which also shape the nature of collaboration among university researchers and other participants in urban sustainability projects. The paper does this on the basis of analysis and reflection upon research and related activities taking place over the period 2007–2011 in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England, focussing on a project called Newcastle Low Carbon Neighbourhoods. The paper finds that academic researchers play multiple, sometimes conflicting roles in such initiatives, and that national structural and locally contingent factors affect the manner of collaboration with non-specialists and the durability of urban sustainability projects. It concludes that more conventional project arrangements may avoid some difficulties associated with such complex projects but potentially denude them of their richness and originality.