How do you grow cities like Cambridge?

Author: Nicholas Falk

A few weeks after the AoU’s Congress on Designing for the Future in the centre of historic Cambridge, Michael Gove MP was reported in the Sunday Times as having a plan to develop Cambridge as Britain’s answer to Silicon Valley. 250,000 extra homes over the next two decades would more than treble the current population, in what is already one of Britain’s fastest growing cities. Some local groups are predictably dismissing it as ‘insane’ – not enough brownfield land and supplies of water are short. Others fear it could endanger current proposals at the planning stage for developing the old airport and former sewage works. Revisiting Cambridge made me think about how to make the most of Britain’s remaining assets and how to resolve planning conflicts without spending a fortune on lawyers!

Stephen Kelly, who as Joint Director of Planning and Economic Development now reports to both Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire, which encircles the city, praised the positive influence of the Quality Charter [1]. The Charter was based on visits and seminars with some hundred contributors, and was intended to help build consensus. It backed up the role of Cambridgeshire Horizons, which the Labour government set up to help deliver the Regional Spatial Strategy. The city is the fastest growing in the UK, and housing designs are evaluated by a Design Review Panel, led by architect Robin Nicolson, under the four themes ‘Community; Connectivity: Climate (proofing); and Character, with nine or ten principles under each.

However, the planning machinery was swept away when the Coalition government took over. The influence of the urban extensions in Freiburg and the Dutch VINEX suburbs can be glimpsed in the exemplary developments on land released from the Green Belt at Trumpington and Eddington. Regrettably, though many awards have been won for individual schemes, such as the innovative co-housing scheme at Marmalade Lane, there has not been the Post Occupancy Evaluation to learn how well the neighbourhoods are meeting resident expectations. Furthermore, the innovations have not been scaled up. At Northstowe, once promoted as an Ecotown on the Guided Bus route, nothing is built this year since Urban Splash folded, and residents are complaining it is a ‘ghost town’ with no shops or services.

While the Charter has been shown to have helped the process of collaboration between the stakeholders, it did not resolve how to make housing affordable [2]. There is a marked division between the two sides of the railway line that runs through the city. The first principle under Connectivity was that ‘new development should be served by rapid transit systems such as railway stations or stops on the Guided Bus route, and incentives to reduce car use’. The mixed  use development around Cambridge Station certainly seems to meet the tests well. The Bio-Medical campus next to Addenbrooke’s Hospital will work even better when a new station proposed for South Cambridge opens up. But proposals for building an underground railway and introducing a Congestion Charge led to the Tory Mayor and a Labour Councillor losing their seats. The city compares poorly in connectivity with the examples we saw in Freiburg and Amersfoort, a contender for this year’s Great European City Award. So with ever more threatening climate and cost of living crises, and a lack of public finance, how can the potential ever be achieved?

A very promising model was set out by Maria Vassalikou, the former Deputy Mayor from Vienna. Vienna is regularly rated as one of the best places to live, thanks to affordable housing, great public transport, and easy access to green space. She presented stunning data on how the city makes housing affordable for all, including the all-important middle class. New settlements like Aspern Seestadt  on a former airfield show how a city can control both design and affordability when it controls the land. This case study was one of a number in a report by a housing group published by the Academy of Urbanism. [3] Housing cooperatives and housing for rent play an important role in providing the choice that keeps housing costs down in the most successful cities. They make housing affordable as well as sustainable. New high density settlements are built in locations that can be accessed by public transport, and most homes are for rent because the land is owned by the local authority.

Currently Cambridge operates within the constraints of the peculiar British system, which for decades has relied on developers to take the lead and reduced the powers of local authorities to play a proactive role. The challenge of living on One Planet, which Sue Riddlestone from BioRegional highlighted, make it vital to consider the longer-term impacts of development decisions in deciding where to build. [4] Andy Haldane in writing the Levelling Up White Paper recognised the importance of both natural and social capital, and blamed the lack of continuity as a major reason for why successive governments have failed to think long term. However so long as developers are mainly concerned with securing quick returns, how are the costs involved in upgrading local connectivity, or securing enough water, to be overcome?

Mid-sized towns and cities like Cambridge or Oxford are at junctions or Switchpoints, to use a term coined by French economist Thomas Piketty, which makes them good places for economic growth. In his major book on Capital he shows how rising incomes fail to catch up with inequalities in wealth [5]. Cities with buoyant economies like Cambridge have options that most other places in the UK do not. They could easily atrophy unless they grow in a planned way. This requires sustainable urban extensions rather than sprawling into the surrounding countryside or over densifying their centres and requires leadership from the public sector. A well-researched report from the Fabian Society’s Commission on Poverty and Regional Inequality, with some superb charts, criticises the British focus on London and the South east and city centres. It points out that most growth takes place on the outskirts of big cities and recommends the policy agenda should deliver:

Inter-city transport connectivity and infrastructure -led housing development in well-connected towns and green belt areas, and market well-connected areas adjacent to cities for inward investment for example.

Ambitious plans for accelerating trends will not be achieved without considerable public investment, even if it is the form of underwriting investments by financial institutions, as effectively happened in London Docklands. In Cambridge difficult choices must be made over whether to put concerted efforts into developing large sites such as Cambridge Airport, on the poor side of the tracks from the historic city centre, perhaps through a mass transit line, or at the sewage works, where Homes England are funding its relocation to enable 6,000 homes to be built at densities of 100 homes / hectare. There are simpler options such as completing Northstowe which is largely owned by Homes England and on the Guided Bus route, which runs past the main science parks. Another option is expanding the new settlements around Trumpington, which house builders would favour, but which offends the planners who want to keep heights down. There are also a mass of other possible sites further out, with old airfields, like Alconbury near St Ives, being developed. Others such as Cambourne could be made more accessible if the railway link between Bedford and Cambridge were ever built. This was crucial element in the vision for an Oxford Milton Keynes Cambridge Arc, which seems to have gone into abeyance. Costed schemes exist for rebuilding the railway line that went to Wisbech, a neglected town in the Fenlands near the coast. Even easier is doubling the size of Ely, a Cathedral City is on the line to Kings Lynn, where I worked on a masterplan for East Cambridgeshire Council.

But the bitter truth is that there are so many different interests, and such huge costs involved in upgrading the infrastructure, for example building a new reservoir, that most of the proposals are likely to remain pipedreams. The UK must compete not only with countries in the European Union, but also with the prospects of an economic recession. My return visit to Stanford and the West Coast of the USA found a dismal world in which ten thousand people live on the streets of San Francisco, while workers live in vans in Silicon Valley because of the housing shortage. Meanwhile traffic congestion and pollution is acute because mass transit lines have not been extended as planned[6]. Politicians rarely appreciate all the work that must be done, and funded, before new homes can be opened, or ribbons cut.

Given the vast investments required before returns are made, a different approach to strategic planning and project appraisal is needed that takes full account of social and environmental, as well as economic capital. The full capital costs need to be covered by a contract which joins up infrastructure with development. The options are too complex to be readily grasped, which is where data science can help. The current structure of development in Cambridge was shaped by the work of Cambridge Futures. Alternative growth models were assessed against multiple criteria, using a transport model that was pioneering several decades ago. Today a report from the Digital Task Force, led by Professor Mike Batty and former RTPI President Wei Yang, suggests the UK has the potential to rebuild our lost capacity for strategic planning[7].  But this requires investment in thinking through the options, rather than spouting visions.  We need to accept that our development system, like our housing policy, is broken, and requires more than a change of government to fix. We should take inspiration from cities that the Academy has assessed to show how to turn crises into opportunities for ‘smarter urbanism’.

[1] Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth, URBED for Cambridgeshire Horizons 2008

[2] Refreshing the Quality Charter for Growth, URBED Trust, 2019

[3]  Better Housing for the 21st Century, Academy of Urbanism, 2019, See also Learning from International Examples of Affordable Housing, http://www.urbedtrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Affordable-housing-Shelter-Draft-7.pdf

[4] Pooran Desai, Bioregonal Solutions: A Framework for Living on One Planet,

[5] Thomas Piketty, Capital in thee 21st Century, Harvard University Prss, 2014

[6]  www./postcardfromthefuture.wordpress.com/

[7] www.digital4planning.com