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Your views: ‘Cambridge was never an industrial city’

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To include Cambridge in the same category as Glasgow, Detroit and Sheffield as Jonathan Glancey does is odd

In response to Notopia: ‘The post-industrial hollowing out of cities is a tragedy for civic identity’ by Jonathan Glancey

To describe Cambridge as sprawling ’in shamefully lazy and increasingly characterless rings around acres of Fenland’ is very far from the truth.   And to single out the ‘much vaunted’ Science Park while at the same time ignoring a project like the University’s new city quarter under construction in North-West Cambridge is to reveal a rather startling lack of engagement with the subject.

Cambridge was never an industrial city. As Jonathan, an inhabitant of the region knows, the Industrial Revolution passed East Anglia by. Oxford may have been industrialised by the car industry but, by the end of WW2, Cambridge was still a small market town dominated by an ancient university.  Determined that it should not suffer Oxford’s fate, there were those in Whitehall who ensured that it became the only un-war damaged place to be the subject of a major planning study.

Lord Holford’s report was published in 1950. The key proposals were that the population should be capped at 100,000 (it was then 86,000), industrial development should be heavily restricted and a tightly-drawn green belt should enclose the city. The 1952 County Development Plan adopted Holford’s recommendations. 65 years later, Cambridge is still struggling with the consequences of these restrictions and, in particular, inadequate infrastructure.

As the economy gradually picked up and the importance of university-based scientific research developed, the pressures on Cambridge grew. Unable to be accommodated within the city, the expanding working population migrated to the widely dispersed villages and small market towns ­ creating tremendous peak-time pressures on the road system. And, in the late 60s, following the City’s rejection of IBM’s bid to establish its European headquarters in Cambridge and the urgent need for commercial accommodation for university start-ups, the University managed to persuade the planning authorities to allow the Science Park ­ the UK’s first. The so-called Cambridge Phenomenon had begun.

By the early 90s, it was only with the greatest reluctance ­ and at an inappropriate suburban density ­ that the planning authorities allowed the University to expand on its West Cambridge site. It was following this debacle that the University’s Department of Architecture took the lead in conceiving, initiating, directing and undertaking a town-gown study of seven alternative propositions for expansion within the city region. The Cambridge Futures project broke the planning logjam and formed the basis for the 2003 County Structure Plan ­ currently in implementation.

Today, as local house prices demonstrate, the pressures on Cambridge are greater than ever. Traffic congestion is a huge problem and there are ever-increasing numbers commuting from Cambridge to London and from London to Cambridge. It’s a small city with a huge hinterland much of its working population and most of its science parks dispersed in the fen, well beyond the city boundary. Economically, it’s an incredibly productive region but firms tend to be small ­ the Napp laboratories mentioned by Jonathan are by far the largest of their kind. Where the city has extended, it’s into South Cambridgeshire ­ a planning authority not exactly famed for the quality of the developments it oversees.  And it’s not even as if Cambridge has control of it’s own destiny.  It is not a unitary authority ­ its highways are the responsibility of a County Council representing a widely dispersed population with different concerns and political tendencies. There’s a huge governance problem and no appetite in Whitehall to resolve it.

And yet despite everything, Cambridge has retained and is even extending its Green Fingers, continues to fiercely debate every incursion into its Green Belt and is trying to do what it can ­ within the limitations of current national planning policy ­ to promote more good buildings and places (and is home to two Stirling Prize winners).  The older University, scarred by the West Cambridge experience,  is currently constructing an entire new city quarter ­ equivalent in area to that which it occupied 50 years ago ­ and of a very high quality.

I never thought I’d find myself defending Cambridge from the barbs of a former colleague ­ I’m usually lined up with the critics.

Thank you for a most stimulating issue.