What could a day college for adults in [South] Cambridge be like?

TL:DR North Cambridge has Cambridge Regional College, but south of the city doesn’t really have an equivalent – and the city itself does not have anything like CityLit in London

Formerly the City Literary Institute in London, the college provides a series of daytime short courses for adults. Given the recent, current, and proposed growth for Cambridge and county, along with the lack of community learning facilities in the new communities and residential estates currently being built, Cambridge is going to need something to fill this gap in the market. Furthermore given the economic and societal changes being forced upon us by the climate emergency and the response to the CoronaVirus outbreak, existing infrastructure might not be fit for purpose.

Sweating existing assets like Long Road Sixth Form College and the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology is one option, but then it rules out the daytime for adults, as quite understandably those institutions are for teenagers and young people. At the same time, school-like environments are known to be a barrier for some people wanting to learn new skills because they had a bad time at school.

What is already out there?

In one sense, the creation of the ‘new’ universities in 1992 – including what is now Anglia Ruskin University (then Anglia Polytechnic University, formerly the Cambridgeshire College of Arts & Technology) took away some of the provision of those courses that are in part being filled by the new Cambridge Academy for Arts and Technology, which is next door to Long Road Sixth Form College, both of whom have very good premises.

There’s also the University of the Third Age in Cambridge which has a huge short course programme aimed at people no longer in full time employment. Although there is no age restriction, it inevitably has a much older cohort of students compared to other institutions. Given its size alone, I think it deserves much larger premises than their cramped Bridge Street premises. In one sense it’s a shame none of the University colleges can accommodate it on their grounds.

If the city wanted city centre premises that were not an office block, part of me would be casting a jealous eye over some of the religious institutions to see if one of them could be converted towards community education for the many, rather than trying to reorientate some of their underused facilities towards the corporate and conferencing market as some have done in recent decades.

Above – Jesus Lane looking south – not a pleasant walk on the south side but some of the buildings of Jesus College, Westcott House and All Saints Church could, if imaginatively redesigned could make for a Cambridge Community Education Institution.

Accessible buildings and accessible by non-motor-car transport

When I compare the local planning processes of past and present, one thing that strikes me is the myopic worldview the development world seems to have on what the city of Cambridge could and/or should become. This is inevitably driven by their paymasters – for example land speculators waiting patiently for the restrictions on parcels of land around the edges of town to be taken off so they can bank the difference and sell on the land with its new residential planning permissions. But that’s a national government issue and while the present administration is in place, along with the current Housing Secretary given his recent controversies, that’s not going to change.

Cambridge City Centre being beyond capacity

I read it in a book somewhere so it must be true, and someone stated somewhere that the maximum population a single town centre or city centre can sustain is about 100,000 people. After that, it becomes too big and alternative centres for different functions are needed. Postwar Cambridge struggled with this problem for decades, trying to deal with a city centre that was a centre for Cambridge University, a rapidly-growing tourism centre, and a regional economic centre. John Parry Lewis bit the bullet in the 1970s and at considerable expense to the local councils, came up with proposals for doubling the size of the city and creating a second centre. (You can read about it here). His plans were seen as too radical and were thrown out.

Almost half a century later and Cambridge’s population has increased by about 50,000 people rather than the 100,000+ that Parry Lewis had modelled for. And when you look at a map of the new housing estates the lack of community facilities compared with those built before them is striking. Have a browse of pubs in South Cambridge here.

What would its design be like?

The easiest thing would be to pick one of the colleges that already exists – eg Homerton College, and say “Like that!” But I wouldn’t recommend its narrow 19thC staircases to anyone that date from the original buildings constructed for the defunct Cavendish College. Part of the solution would involve engaging with potential students at design stage. What could learning rooms look like? What would common areas be like? How would it be lit and powered? How would people get to/from the venue? How high should the buildings be? How much open space should there be? How much of that open space could be dedicated for sports, and how much as open parkland for leisurely strolls mindful of the audience? Architecturally how could it be designed to look nice, unique, and something that people can immediately look at and associate with both the institution and the city? (i.e. something that’s not identikit/could be built anywhere?). Finally, how would it be financed and who would the institution be accountable to other than its staff and students?

Again, the design would also be strongly influenced by the activities expected to take place there. Performance theatres, concert halls, lecture halls, sports halls, classrooms, science labs, engineering workshops, artist studios, music rehearsal rooms, common rooms, dining halls, cafes, canteens, cycle parks, bus stops, car pool parks…and suddenly it looks a lot more complex. Yet something like this might make for an ideal focus for a ward or neighbourhood – something that people would choose to live close by. At the same time if enough medium-density housing was built nearby, it might encourage those moving into the workplace for the first time and moving into their own places for the first time to keep up a habit of learning in the community throughout their lives.





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