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// New developments: profit before place?

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve the sense of place in high streets and town centres, but how are we doing when it comes to introducing placemaking principles in new developments? BEN STEPHENSON took a look at how three new housing developments in Cambridge are approaching the problem.

A timely article in the Observer this week has highlighted the problem of new developments that front-load profit-making housebuilding at the expense of amenities such as playspace and community centres, which are relegated to later phases. A major forthcoming study by Prof Matthew Carmona at UCL has found that such practices are all too common among housebuilders.

Creating a sense of place in new developments is never easy, but we know that there are ways that physical development can encourage connection, interaction, the proliferation of community activity and culture.

Amid the efforts to address the housing shortage in the UK, places like Cambridgeshire are seen as key to solving the problem - plenty of jobs in emerging sectors, space to build, good transport accessibility and an attractive city with lots of stuff to do.

At the edge of Oakington in Cambridgeshire, the village I grew up in, Northstowe is gradually taking shape. With 300 of its 10,000 dwellings now complete, and huge infrastructure improvements to nearby A14 to make it accessible, the UK's first new town in 50 years will be the size of Amersham. A great number of the houses are already occupied, but with the town centre not due to open until 2030, Northstowe is almost entirely dormitory and looks set to remain so for some time.

Evidence of occupation is present, with cars in the driveways and curtains up in the windows, but it's rare to see people on the streets. Surrounded by fenland, and with few trees to protect it, the wind whips through the small gardens and wide streets. Bovis, Linden and Barratt marketing suites promise executive living, and living here will cost between £300 - £600k, but at the moment there's an air of desolation about the place.

Its hard to imagine who is being attracted to live in Northstowe. Public realm and landscaping is an uninspired afterthought, and with few amenities to encourage local activity the entire site is designed around heavy car use. A noticeboard on a patch of grass with the promise of shops to come is the only sign that community is intended to proliferate. The site seems to have been designed as separate land parcels without the vision of a masterplan or the sense of who will use the public space or how.

The central lesson of the (still yet to be satisfactorily defined) notion of placemaking is that People Make Places, but Northstowe is a disheartening example of developments that require people to do all the heavy lifting. The sense of place will probably happen over time, but it will happen in spite of physical design, not aided by it.

A contrasting example is Eddington, a 3,000 home university-funded site on the outskirts of Cambridge. This place is built with the recognition that new residents should not be made to suffer while the community grows and evolves.

At the heart of the new development is a supermarket, which draws people in from the outside to create vitality and bustle, knitting the site into the wider urban fabric. Smaller retail units, most yet to be taken up, surround a central square which includes a small number of street food vendors and communal tables to eat at. Nicely designed wayfinding orientates the visitor across the site.

Eddington residents enjoy great cycling infrastructure and a variety of transport links, public art, sports pitches, play equipment, a functioning community centre and a beautifully designed school. Posters across the place advertise the cultural programme.

The architecture itself is varied and interesting, ranging from executive homes to quadrangles of apartments. The use of water and landscaping is central to the design. A feature is made of the energy centre, while servicing and waste disposal arrangements are cleverly hidden underground.

The University has developed this site purely for students and university staff, contributing less to the housing shortage for the general population than is needed. Seen in this light, Eddington's exclusive quadrangles echo the ancient, protective architecture of Trinity or Clare.

However, the University has given significant consideration to the way this place will work for their residents. They are lucky to have the opportunity, it'll be a great place to live. The question remains whether the pressures of profit-driven developers enable these principles to be replicated elsewhere.

Orchard Park lies on the northern fringe of the city. It has been largely complete since 2009 and a third of its 900 dwellings are affordable. As a more mature example of a new development it gives us some clues as to how places evolve as they become more populated. It's possible to see on a walk around the site how people have made their own rules about how they park their cars, or how they use public green spaces. Cambridge City Council's review of Orchard Park provides interesting reading and shows how things can transform between the good intentions of design and the realities of implementation.

One particular example of good placemaking in Orchard Park is the Marmalade Lane co-housing development, which comprises 42 sustainable homes and a range of co-owned communal facilities, including gardens, a 'common house' and a car free street for children to play in. The design is human-centred and encourages interaction at every turn. Joint ownership and management means the residents must work together to run the site, and this leads to other communal activity from childcare to communal dining.

Marmalade Lane represents another important example of how both design and governance can encourage a sense of community, joint ownership and place. Oliver Wainwright's write-up in The Guardian includes the stories of some of the people that live there and their decisions for doing so. I doubt it's as utopian as the piece suggests, but providing the right conditions for community to thrive is the minimum we should expect of all new developments.

The planning regime has to balance the country's desperate need for more houses against other matters in the application, and in this landscape the market and the developer is trusted to create the demand for its product. The housing shortage is acute and buyers can always be found, but as more of these developments spring up, we should ask ourselves whether we're meeting our responsibility to create sustainable communities this way?


Ben Stephenson is a consultant specialising in placemaking and urban development at BAS Consultancy.

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