Azara Blog: Urban Design in Cambridge: Challenges and Opportunities

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Date published: 2005/06/21

Glen Richardson, the Urban Design Mananger at Cambridge City Council, gave a presentation tonight on "Urban Design in Cambridge: Challenges and Opportunities", at the Michaelhouse Centre, as part of Architecture Week 2005. Needless to say, most of the audience were the usual suspects: politicians and bureaucrats and other members of the middle class with an interest in design or architecture. Richardson is a recent arrival in Cambridge but already seems to have grasped that you have to be careful what you say around here.

Having said that, Richardson started out by mentioning the "high quality public realm" manifest in the centre of Cambridge (thanks to the university and colleges, not the city), and contrasting that with the "suburban realm" with "less appeal and identity", i.e. most of Cambridge looks pretty much like any other town in the UK (i.e. mediocre). That might have been considered to be a slightly controversial statement.

Richardson is from Canada, so he next listed some of the obvious differences between North America and the UK. So in the former there is (supposedly) a "dominance of suburbs" and the urban areas mostly have "downtowns of indiscernable quality". (He then quickly mentioned Montreal, Boston, New York, etc., as counter-examples, which already takes up a reasonable fraction of the urban population.) Well, is that really different from the UK? Most people in the UK want to live in suburbs (and Cambridge is mostly a suburb in spite of what some people think), but the urban elite certainly have a stronger stranglehold on planning in the UK than in the US.

He then listed the "challenges", since Cambridge is supposed to add over 12000 dwellings by 2016. Guess what, transport is a problem. Well, interestingly enough, he also mentioned people's fear of change. And transport actually falls into a similar paradigm. Everybody always believes transport is a disaster and the world will end if something is not done, but everybody is always wrong. On transport Richardson of course promoted the current politically correct party line, namely that cars are the source of all evil in the world and that of course pedestrians should come first in transport, then cyclists, then buses and finally cars (if the ruling elite are kind enough to allow anyone to have one). One of the city councillors at the end pointed out that in fact most people believe the opposite, that cars should have priority (since most people are drivers). So this is just another demonstration of the disconnect between the ruling elite (of Cambridge, the UK and Europe, for that matter) and ordinary people.

Richardson of course also mentioned "sustainable" communities (blah, blah, blah). Being an outsider, when he first arrived in Cambridge he said he was surprised by all his colleagues constantly referring to "sustainable" this, that and the other. But now he was willing to use this term as a pro like the rest. Unfortunately "sustainable" has become one of those dread words used by the elite to justify anything and everything, and at its core is of course the cult of hatred of the car. Isn't it amazing that the ordinary public can see how useful cars are but the ruling elite cannot figure that out (hint for the ruling elite: it makes people independently mobile; yes, we know you hate people being independently mobile because you are control freaks who think you know best when and how people should get from A to B).

He mentioned a few specific projects. There is the Crowne Plaza Hotel (originally a Holiday Inn) on Downing Street. A mediocre building if ever there was one, and located smack in the middle of what should be a prestige site in the centre of Cambridge. Unfortunately as part of the so-called Grand Arcade scheme they knocked down the Norwich Union building instead of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

There is the complex on the old Cattle Market site housing a new cinema and hotel (and other premises). The main problem here is that the large square in the middle is just a large soulless square of no charm and just begging the youth of Cambridge to engage in brawls there on Friday night. Now you go to almost any city on the Continent and you find large squares of great charm, so where has Cambridge gone wrong? Perhaps the square just needs to age (which is what Richardson seemed to suggest). Perhaps the fact that the immediate neighbourhood has no great quality is part of the problem.

There is King's Parade. Well of course everybody loves King's Parade. Of course it was not planned by government, which is perhaps the clue. At the end someone asked a question about the street lights on King's Parade, apparently they are not suitable for the location (and were "temporary"). You know you are surrounded by middle class people when the biggest concern in life someone can express is the alleged horribleness of the street lights.

There is the so-called Grand Arcade. Well the less said about this the better. The construction of this is just now starting, so perhaps it will be good. But far more likely it will be Lion Yard Mark II, so another shopping mall which could be found anywhere in the world.

There is the station area project (still on the drawing board, with allegedly a budget of 700-800 million pounds). Unfortunately Richard Rogers has been appointed some kind of master planner for this by the developers, so we are likely to have some completely inappropriate and idiotic muddle at the end of it. And mostly London commuters living there, so hardly a great scheme for Cambridge.

Richardson gave a lot of the typical current political slant on design ("appreciation of context", "character and identity", "creating supporting community", "attention to detail", etc.). In fact, if you modified the odd word here and there, then he could have given this kind of politically correct talk at any time in the last half a century. And the problem the ruling elite of Cambridge have to face is that if you asked anyone what the best buildings and housing is in town then all of those listed would be private sector and none of them would have been designed, championed or built by the city, who instead have been responsible for some of the worst examples (sometimes in league with developers). (If you look at the list of 100 notable buildings in Cambridge you will find only one building, the Parkside Pools, which government had any hand in planning, designing or building.) So what chance is there that this future development will somehow be better, with all their middle class supposition and arrogance about what is best for the public.

Of course one of the bugbears of the current urban planning elite is that all new housing has to be high density rabbit hutches (which often means flats). (Allegedly because high density is pro-bus and anti-car.) And the "high density" approach was supported positively by several people in the audience (including one who made the usual socialist suggestion that there should be no private gardens, heaven forbid for ordinary people to actually own a plot of land larger than a postage stamp). Richardson quoted several development densities, depending on the questioner, anywhere from 20 to 70 dwellings per hectare. One of the city councillors said that the current building site on Hills Road next to the railway line was more like 200 per hectare (hard to believe it is that high), and that the city had recently received an application for a development at 700 per hectare. Yes, why don't we just turn Cambridge into an urban hell.

(And the widely used measure of dwellings per hectare is misleading in any case. If you are really worried about density, then you should be measuring people per hectare. Otherwise three flats with one person each in them is somehow considered to be three times as "good" as one house with three people living in it. Unfortunately the urban planning elite haven't even figured this one out yet.)

The average quality of housing in Cambridge is already fairly mediocre and the new stuff will almost certainly push the average down. How is the university going to attract world-class talent? Well in some sense it already lost that battle half a century ago. But imagine you are a young professor with a bright future and you are invited to come here. You are paid not very much and the housing you can afford is something that a poor person might aspire to elsewhere in the world. Similarly, although the hi-tech boom has long since been over, there are still new hi-tech millionaires being created every year in Cambridge, with no houses to match. We need more housing like you find on Barrow Road, Latham Road and Millington Road. We are hardly getting a single new house like that. Of course perhaps America is becoming such an unattractive place to live that people will come here in spite of the conditions.

Someone asked about self-build opportunities amongst the 12000 new dwellings in Cambridge. The city bureaucrats both said there was nothing definite on that front. And the questioner also asked why the city could not just buy the greenbelt land that was about to be developed, parcel into plots, and sell these for specific purposes and with the general public involved, and not just developers (apparently this is what happens in Germany). That got the biggest clap of the night but the bureaucrats again poured cold water on this idea. This is a problem, the people running the show have no vision (it's not just Cambridge, it's all of the UK ruling elite).

Cambridge will hopefully muddle through in spite of the city council and in spite of the developers.

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