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Placemaking in Cambridge Site Visit

Thousands of modern high-density homes are being delivered in Cambridge. Kent Design organised a study tour in the city on 4 May 2014 to find out if this emerging success story can be replicated in Kent.

We invited participants to join some of the leading architects, planners and housebuilders to explore Cambridge’s approach to and management of growth, whilst delivering quality. As well as visiting the award winning Abode at Great Kneighton (designed by Proctor and Matthews Architects for Countryside Properties), attendees also enjoyed a guided tour of the Accordia and Trumpington Meadows developments. Alongside site visits, participants learned more about the strategy underpinning the range of exciting developments in the area through a number of presentations throughout the day. Speakers included:

  • Stephen Proctor, Director at Proctor and Matthews Architects
  • Andrew Carrington, Strategic Land Director at Countryside Properties UK Ltd
  • Peter Studdert, Independent Town Planning & Urban Design Consultant
  • Sharon Brown, New Neighbourhood Manager at Cambridge City Council,
  • Glen Richardson, Urban Design and Conservation Manager at Cambridge City Council.

Planning officers can sometimes have a thankless task convincing their members of the long-term benefits of good design in housing developments. Familiar refrains from sceptical members include: “People want traditional housing types with conventional back gardens and they don’t like modern design.” Kent Design organised the study trip to Cambridge to challenge some of these preconceptions. Cambridge is putting its ambitious growth plans for more than 14,000 homes in and around the city into action after a decade of painstaking planning.

It has not been an easy ride, says Glen Richardson, Urban Design Manager of Cambridge City Council, but he was able to show a group of planners, members and design professionals from Kent several built schemes in South Cambridge where a new paradigm has worked brilliantly.

The tour took in the emerging urban development around the Trumpington area on the city’s southern fringe, including Countryside’s newly built 306-dwelling scheme at Great Kneightonand Barratt’s 353-dwelling scheme at Trumpington Meadows – both of which are proving to be a big commercial success. The tour moved a bit further into Cambridge to view the Accordia project to see how the award-winning scheme has matured into a much-loved place.

Great Kneighton, designed by Proctor and Matthews, uses local materials, reflecting the surrounding agricultural area, cleverly blended into the modern family homes. These include black-timber cladding (a nod to local farm buildings) and local buff brick. “I’m really impressed at the wide palette of different materials,” says Ellen Gilbert, Principal Planner, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. “The colours work really well together.”

Visitors were also impressed that despite the high densities, a solution had been found to secrete parking for two cars and bins in generous garage spaces around the side of the dwellings, creating open space at the front with attractive timber seating integrated into the facades, where residents can chat to their neighbours over a cup of tea, unencumbered by the typical suburban blights of cars parked on half the pavement and bins placed clumsily outside the house. Mark Chaplin, Principal Urban Designer, Ashford Borough Council, says: “The experience has taught us about how important it is to push the architects in the nitty-gritty things such as having the garage integrated with bin storage. It’s the type of thing that if you get wrong everyone tells you about it.”

Roger Chan, a visiting Professor of Architecture and Design at Hong Kong University was impressed at the openness and community feeling of Clay Farm: “In Singapore and Hong Kong this would be a gated community,” he said. “I like the fact that the design has been able to generate community feeling without sacrificing density. For example, there are little strips of land within the development that have been used very cleverly to make play spaces for children.”

Land values and house prices make a telling case for investing in such details. Four-bed homes at Great Kneightonare fetching as much as £550,000.

Barratt’s properties at Trumpington Meadows are less expensive, but the council has worked hard with the housebuilder and architect Allies and Morrison to deliver a high-quality design. As the result, the dwellings have been designed in the vernacular using gault brick fashioned from local clay, roof slates and (decorative) tall chimneys that are germane to the area. The scheme is one of the first in Cambridge to use design coding, strictly prescribing design details such as heights of walls and window types.

Anthony Dance, Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, Canterbury City Council was impressed by the public spaces. “We will encourage our developers to come to Cambridge and take a look. Each urban extension appears to be linked to an extensive country park-type open space with play areas, sports pitches and semi-natural areas.”

The final stop was the award-winning Accordia scheme designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley with Alison Brooks and Maccreanor Lavington – the first housing project to win the Stirling Prize, disproving the theory that single-story modern pre-fabs would be unpopular in Cambridge. “The use of balconies and roof gardens at Accordia shows how it is possible to get away from the idea of private gardens 10m deep,” says Teresa Ryszkowska, Planning Services Manager at Dartford Borough Council.

Michael Burgess, Councillor, Ashford Borough Council, said that looking at the schemes had convinced him to seek a higher standard of design in Ashford and speak “first hand to architects and developers, seeking questions and getting honest answers.”

A theme running through the day was that early, informal discussions at the pre-application process are crucial, even though it can be difficult to persuade members to pay for the extra time involved. Design quality needs to be enshrined at this stage. Details, such as the quality of the brick should be discussed. Developers do not want to be locked into these details at such an early stage and need a lot of persuasion. However, it enhances the ability to get a better outcome and saves the developer frustration farther on in the process.

David Prichard, architect and founding partner of Metropolitan Workshop, says: “If a design is discussed early it saves so much time and frustration later on because housing is the most complex building type you can ever get involved in.” Prichard, who is a member of the Swale design panel, early design review meetings need to be constructive and positive. “Developers complain about the confused messages they get from panels. It is important to offer a direction of travel for the design. It is quite a skill.”

Aline Hicks, Councillor Ashford Borough Council, agrees: “Pre-application presentations to elected members are very helpful. Ashford councillors also take part in design review meetings. Open dialogue works well.”

Lynda Middlemiss, Principal Planning Officer at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council adds: “There is no substitute for getting it right at the beginning of the masterplan, but members tend to come on board too late in the process, so on bigger schemes we arrange pre-application presentations and are looking at design training generally for our members.”

Given the high-quality designs on show, it was all the more remarkable that projects, such as Great Kneightonand Trumpington Meadows, were delivered during a recession with 40 per cent affordable housing. For example, Countryside fought hard against the 40 per cent figure at Great Kneighton; there was a public inquiry in 2009 and Cambridge City Council won. It helped that Cambridge had a long-standing partnership with a housing association and the affordable homes were so integrated that it was difficult to distinguish them from the commercial ones.

“We had a big fight with Countryside over the affordable housing element of the Great Kneighton scheme,” said Peter Studdert. “The council insisted on sticking to 40 per cent affordable housing at a time when even DCLG and HCA were putting pressure on it to make concessions. However, there are a lot of relatively low-paid people working at Addenbrookes Hospital near by who really need affordable housing, so we felt fully justified in sticking to our guns.”

Another big challenge was building houses in the face of initial local opposition. Lessons on how to beat the Nimbys can be learnt. “Trumpington residents were not overjoyed at the area being turned from a village into a small town, but they could see that it was a sensible place to develop,” says Peter Studdert. “We had very good ward councillors and residents associations and they helped to sell the benefits such as the guided bus link, new secondary school and job creation”.

One of the biggest issues that came up when discussing whether the Cambridge experience could be replicated was quality of staff, especially during a period of swingeing public sector cutbacks.

Sharon Brown, Manager, New Neighbourhoods, Cambridge City Council spoke of the importance of “having key people to drive forward the growth plans over a long period of time.”

Teresa Ryszkowska said that Dartford was exploring joint working with other local authorities to share quality staff so that decent salaries could be paid.

Clive Gilbert of Gravesham Borough Council said its training of members to facilitate their constructive involvement right way through the process was “paying significant dividends”.

Glen Richardson fielded many questions such as: “It may be ok for Cambridge to develop such ambitious modern housing where land values are so hight, but it would never work in our borough in Kent?” However, he urged them to be bold. “Get the broad vision right and the housebuilders will follow you.”

Ideas to take forward

  • Research the local materials of the area and incorporate them into the building design. Be open minded and flexible about use of different building typologies.
  • Produce an agreed ‘Development Framework’ and set of design codes at the pre-application stage to achieve a locally distinctive ‘place’. This is especially important where multiple developers involved.
  • Stick to your guns on affordable housing and set up long-term partnerships with housing associations to make affordable housing easier to deliver.
  • Do your utmost to build a quality planning team to create the urban design vision. Continuity of planning staff is crucial to good placemaking. If necessary, share planning staff between authorities to afford the salary for the right person.
  • Clarify design details with architects and developers at the pre-application stage and give them a clear direction of travel at design review.
  • Train members in masterplanning and placemaking and get them involved early in the process. Supportive and informative ward councillors are an invaluable tool to beat the nimbys.
  • Establish a Neighbourhoods Team within the local authority with a specific brief to focus on the large new areas of strategic housing (say 500-5000 new homes) which involves so many specific skills, challenges and co-ordination. These teams could be shared across different local authorities.

We would like to thank Cambridge City Council and Countryside Properties for supporting this event:

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