What could new town squares in South Cambridgeshire look like? How can residents influence their design?

The current and new local plans make provision for a number of new civic squares. The ones that have already been built have that corporate anonymous ‘could be anywhere’ look. How can we avoid this for Northstowe, Waterbeach Newtown, Bourn Airport site, Cambridge Airport site, North East Cambridge, and other places that may follow?

The thread by Mike Scialom of the Cambridge Independent here (& below) has started another debate on some of the awful design and architecture of new homes in and around Cambridge.

I’m beyond bored with moaning about uninspiring, bland architecture and housing design that maximises profits, minimises costs, and all-too-frequently is of a poor construction standard as Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner told the House of Commons less than a year ago. (It has both the video and the transcript of Mr Zeichner’s speech).

This post stems from a Twitterthread inviting people to name the most beautiful squares, piazzas, & streets that they have seen in real life.

Above – Brian Harris with a satirical suggestion of Cambridge’s Station Square by controversial firm Brookgate.

“Finally, the completion of the original Richard Rogers designed public square will happen in 2022 funded by the Formation architect designed residential buildings. 3 and 4 Station Square were acquired by Weston Homes in 2019. “

Mike Derbyshire of Bidwells, Sept 2021.

Brookgate were also appointed to develop the area around North Cambridge Railway Station, including the station square – which Mr Derbyshire as agent for the developer, presented to Cambridge City Council’s planning committee the new hotel as an “acceptable” design (see the video here)

Above – the corporate hotel of “acceptable” design at North Cambridge Station. Taken by me in November 2021. My view remains that Cambridge should be demanding far better than ‘acceptable’ when it comes to new buildings. You can read more about the redevelopment proposals and current work here.

There are Piazzas Siena, Italy style, and there are Piazzas corporate style. From the proposals for North Cambridge Station’s redevelopment at the old Chesterton sidings.

In the case of the approved designs for Cambridge North Station, you can already see the second building under construction that will repeat all of the same faults of the Cambridge Railway Station: A car-based taxi rank for the hotel, conflicts with cycle paths as CamCycle pointed out at the time, and overbearing buildings of a bland uninspiring design next to a station that is full of grey.

Above – North Station Square – from G-Maps here.

Now, I’m not saying that every single new civic square should be an identikit one of a design that I happen to like. When I visited Siena in late 1998 it was the first of several Italian civic squares that I got to see on that visit. Over the next decade I’d get to see a number of wonderful examples across continental Europe after I left Cambridge for University and beyond.

“What’s wrong with contemporary civic squares?”

It depends who you ask. Ultimately it’s a matter of opinion. But rather than starting with what’s wrong, I want to start with a few examples that I like. Two designs that I mentioned in a recent online exchange were Birmingham’s Victoria Square, and Ipswich’s Cornhill.

Birmingham’s Council House Building is for me a wonderful example of civic magnificence and pride. Sadly too much of the area around it has been ruined by huge towerblocks. Ipswich’s town hall, which is ever so Germanic in its design (when it was built it was a significant East Anglian trading port with The Netherlands & NW Germany) and is proportioned just right for the size of its town.

In 2006 when I visited Graz in Austria for a couple of days, I was struck by their wonderful city hall, and wondered why Cambridge didn’t have anything similar to it.

Above – Graz City Hall – and from G-Maps here you can see how it looks from the clock tower at the top of the hill fort that dominates the city.

The visit was before I discovered John Belcher’s plans that were effectively vetoed twice by Conservative Councillors on Cambridge Borough Council that the Liberal Mayor Horace Darwin had commissioned in 1897 (once by forcing a referendum of rate payers in 1898, and then again in 1913).

Above – John Belcher’s unexecuted guildhall design for Cambridge, from the late 1890s. From the Cambridgeshire Collection. I’d like to see this design refreshed and improved upon so it could fit as a new facade for the existing 1930s guildhall.

“What’s wrong with the recent ones built in/around Cambridge?”

Cambourne, west of Cambridge

I wrote about the lessons learnt document published in 2007 here. Compare the screengrabs and photographs with the first masterplan from 1995 which South Cambridgeshire District Council digitised and forgot about – but which I found here. I remain of the view that the people of Cambourne deserve so much better than what planners, developers, and urban designers, along with the big supermarket and financiers – and politicians have left them with. The failure is collective – and is a failure to think and act for the longer term for the generations that have the task of trying to overcome the flaws and faults that, through no fault of their own, have been designed in. There is a huge opportunity to improve the situation with both the emerging new local plan, and the coming of East-West Rail which I expect will have to provide a station stop at Cambourne. This presents a significant opportunity to build a proper civic square that can have an eye-catching civic building that is both local government accommodation, and a civic arts centre, while at the opposite end you can have the railway station and transport interchange – one entrance spilling out onto the civic square, and the other entrance being for your public transport.

Clay Farm, by the Cambridge Biomedical Campus

This is the sort of housing that is “jizzletastic” (to use a pejorative made-up word) for developers because the new properties so close to Addenbrooke’s and the life sciences buildings – in particular the detached town houses, go for over £1million each. You can read the 160-page design code here.

I’m not a fan of the design of the cheap excuse of a community centre they built for the area – the residents deserve so much better than the current Clay Farm Centre below.

Above – the Clay Farm Centre from G-Maps.

The venue includes the far-too-small Eva Hartree Hall, which I slammed back in 2020 because I think it’s unworthy to name such a bland facility after one of Cambridge’s greatest councillors – and our first woman mayor. As with Cambourne, the residents of Clay Farm and Trumpington deserve far, far better. And that is a general theme I repeatedly come back to: We are Cambridge – we demand better!

Because this seems to be happening time and again, with development after development, there comes a point where it’s hard to ignore the structural and systematic problems. There’s only so many times you can blame local councillors if the same things happen over and over again whether those councillors represent any of the main political parties or whether they are independent.

Darwin Green Local Centre – NW Cambridge

A further housing extension in the north of the city.

Above – from Makower, the architects.

This is the development between Girton College and Histon Road south of the A14 – one which I think far more land should have been allocated as open park land for the residents of Arbury. As with other developments, the big volume developers dominate – one of them has their designs here for you to see.

Orchard Park – North West Cambridge

A slightly earlier development – with an established urban parish council, one of the very few locally as the development sits outside the municipal boundary. Therefore it falls within South Cambridgeshire District Council rather than Cambridge City Council. Given some of the social challenges it faces, alongside the challenges its neighbouring wards face, it’s hard to avoid wondering about the urban design, and structural local government issues that could be contributing towards the situations they face.

Above – Orchard Park on G-Maps here.

I can’t imagine what the impact must be of being hemmed in by the guided busway tracks, two of the busiest roads in the north of the city – King’s Hedges Road & Histon Road, and finally the A14 and the busy junction for Histon & Impington. I wonder what impact the noise and traffic pollution has on the local community – who furthermore have been blessed/cursed with a community hall which, as with so many others I’ve been into for various events, is far too small.

Comparing developments between generations – the Beehive Centre and the old PYE Factory

PYE was once one of the biggest employers in the city, and you can find out about their history in the Museum of Technology. This photograph illustrates how development styles, economic pressures, and social values changed over time. The roundabout at the bottom-right is Coldham’s Lane / Asda / Beehive Centre junction.

Above – from G-Maps here. Aesthetically as collective developments, the more recent, more dense St Matthew’s Gardens with the distinctive oval green open space works better for me than the earlier development of Silverwood Close. That’s not to say residents of either both have not had their own issues and design problems to deal with.

Above – from Paul Lucas – The PYE Story, the photo dating from the 1960s. You can see the Silverwood Close cul-de-sac on the left, with the then massive PYE works next to it. Just over half a century ago the site was a buzzing factory with workers bused in or who drove in from surrounding villages. And instead of the retail park we’re familiar with today, on the other side of Coldham’s lane was a derelict brickworks waiting to be demolished.

“You’re comparing grand civic halls with neighbourhood community centres – that’s not comparing like-with-like!”

Depends who’s paying the bill for what.

Furthermore, we now have the communications technology to demonstrate that new communities do not need to be stuck with the urban design & architectural faults of previous generations of urban expansion. Just as I have shown photos of civic halls elsewhere, what’s to stop developers and councils from doing similar, showing successful designs elsewhere and asking local residents whether similar designs could work in developments where they live. The same goes for leisure facilities – though in that case this requires research on what is already available locally, and what is not but might be suitable both for local residents and people from neighbouring villages and towns coming in by public transport.

This also feeds into my issues on consultation generally and how it is broken. Not a new issue – read this from 2008 by The Government. What is genuinely available to local communities when it comes to deciding on options? Who comes up with the options in the first place and how? What is the process for influencing what those options should be? Again – similar questions for why we’ve ended up with four guided/segregated busways for Cambridge when no one remembers any politician standing on a public platform and saying “Vote for me and you’ll get four new busways!”

One of the problems is that the parameters are set far too narrow.

When you look at the developments either currently happening or are very likely to happen on the existing political/economic trajectory, you notice how everything seems to be piecemeal. As a result, we only get the most minimalist of community facilities that developers can get away with – because local councils have no funding due to austerity. It’s almost as if ministers have banned councils from building their own community facilities with their own revenue. So what we have is a planning system that is hard-wired to produce bland suburbia with few community facilities – ones that will only serve an immediate locality. This means that we seldom get facilities that serve larger areas, districts, cities, counties and even regions. The result? Existing facilities built by previously civic-minded generations, such as the Cambridge Corn Exchange opened by Mayor John Death in 1875, end up serving far greater parts of the country than they were designed for – and/or find themselves too small to cope with the needs & wants of a larger and more affluent population than the age they were built in. Others – such as Parkside Pools find themselves in a similar situation – being beyond its capacity because it has to serve not just the city but South Cambridgeshire too – as the latter district has no large municipal swimming pools of its own. Hence why I have been lobbying councillors about using part of the North East Cambridge site next to the Science Park Guided Busway Stop as a possible location for a new large pool that could serve north Cambridge and the villages along the busway.

The new developments:

The places listed in the Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2018-30 are in this article in the Cambridge Independent. Several of these will be added to in the emerging plan for 2030-41.

Within/on the edges of Cambridge City we have:

  • Cambridge Airport
  • Cambridge Biomedical Campus
  • Cambridge Southern Fringe (Clay Farm etc)
  • Cambridge North West (Darwin Green & Eddington)
  • Marleigh – East of Abbey
  • Newmarket Road/Coldham’s Lane ‘opportunity areas’
  • North East Cambridge (the Sewage Works)
  • North Cherry Hinton (Next to the airport)

Beyond Cambridge City in South Cambridgeshire we have:

  • Bourne Airport
  • Cambourne West
  • Northstowe
  • Waterbeach Newtown

I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions about getting a better deal for the residents of Cambourne. Where Cambourne Village College is on the map below is where the proposed Cambourne West development will be, with the Bourn airfield clearly visible for the proposed development there.

Above – Cambourne, with Papworth Hall and the old Papworth Hospital site gathering dust. From G-Maps.

Which also raises the question: What is happening with the old Papworth Hospital site? Furthermore, at what point will firms and industries think about relocating from Cambridge to Cambourne? Could an inspiring civic square with a wonderful town hall opposite what will be a railway station for a major new railway line (East West Rail) be sufficient incentives?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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