This is an entirely new urban quarter being developed initially by the University on land on the north-western edge of Cambridge. It is adjacent to a park-and-ride bus terminal, but has also been given additional transport links to the city in the form of cycle ways and a car sharing scheme. The site has been occupied for around 18 months but there is still much construction to be done.
The newly designed primary school (overseen by the University) has attracted attention, and the community centre is a candidate for the Stirling Prize. A new supermarket has opened, and other shops will follow in the central ‘market place’ in the near future, along with a hotel.
The quality of the architecture and construction is high, and perhaps unsurprisingly it has something of the feel of a university campus.
Once again, consideration has been given to the entire urban environment, with broad boulevards, numerous pedestrian routes on an engaging variety of scales and a sequence of open squares and courtyards. Mature trees have been widely imported and imaginative planting laid out, though it will of course take time for this to reach maturity.
Sustainability is integral to the plan: for example, many buildings have high-quality communal bicycle parking and refuse is dealt with by banks of communal bins in the street. These appear small, but in fact empty onto large underground receptacles which are periodically lifted out and emptied by lorry. A very neat solution.
Build-quality appears high. Many of the buildings are in the form of terraces and apartment blocks, which while not to everyone’s taste, do make for very efficient use of space, and the retention of privacy while building at high density – unlike many more ordinary modern, high-density housing estates. Perhaps part of the matter here is challenging people’s preconceptions of these matters – probably somewhat easier in a relatively liberal place like Cambridge.
Some of the architecture has classical overtones, while some of the open spaces and avenues offer reminders of some of the spaces that many find attractive in continental towns, but which the traditional British model rarely produces.
On the south side of Cambridge, a huge development is occurring near Addenbrookes Hospital. This has taken the Accordia concept several stages further, as mass-housing developers seek to cash in on the attractiveness of the model to the Cambridge market. Again this is on the edge of the city, but is served by another nearby park and ride terminus, while Cambridge’s malfunction-troubled guided busway penetrates the site.
I was expecting this site to be disappointing: the usual dilution of a great concept in the name of fast profit, but in the event I found it significantly better than that. There is a clear master-plan to the site, and its huge scale does not seem to detract greatly as a result. There are spine roads, but many discrete neighbourhoods, laid out on varying patterns but with frequent reference to the same principles of shared street space and the creation of an strong sense of place. This, to my mind, is successful, unlike the many anonymous clone-estates seen in much of the rest of the country.
Several bulk-builders are construction on the site, which has led to a variety of styles, though the quality is perhaps less consistent than in the previous two developments. Conversation with the representative of one company confirmed that it has tried to ‘raise its game’ in this location, which is encouraging – but it begs the question why there appears to be little intention of offering the same approach elsewhere in the country.
All in all, this was an inspiring day. It shows that the potential exists for Britain to produce residential quarters significantly better than the usual bland Lego-box pastiche estates – and they will sell. Perhaps the most reassuring (and surprising) point was to see that even the quantity builders can use these principles without completely bastardising them.
My county has long had design guidelines for new development – a reaction to its blitzing with low-grade suburban development in the twentieth century. The latest incarnation of the Essex Design Guide is not hostile to contemporary architecture, but it makes the very good point that great architecture is not only about landmark buildings. The quality of ordinary ones – and the streetscapes between them – makes a far more significant contribution to the quality of people’s lives, and it is encouraging to see that the country is not beyond getting this right.
We now just need to do it much more widely.