What’s the difference between a place and a space? It might sound like a bit of an abstract question, but I’d suggest it’s actually a critical distinction when it comes to perspectives on planning and the current Local Plan consultation being run by the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service on behalf of the City Council and South Cambs District Council.
For the pro-development lobby, which includes central government, Cambridge and its surroundings are space which is ripe for development and about which they can tell a story about the ‘need’ to continually accelerate the intensity of economic activity.
This story is at the heart of the current Local Plan proposals, in terms of both job creation and housing development. All the housing growth we’ve seen in the city and South Cambs in the last 20 years amounts to only just over half of that which is now proposed for the next 20 years. That’s 48,400 more houses in the next 20 years, compared to 27,400 over the last 20, shown in red here:
And yet, as this recent Local Plan Update from property consultants Bidwells makes clear, even this is nowhere near aggressive enough for the pro-growth lobby:
It’s not hard to guess where that push is likely to come from.
The truth is that we’re long overdue a properly inclusive conversation about what the development lobby think constitutes ‘the city’ and why they are so confident that the commercial targets of the actors that they represent should take precedence over every other aspect of civic life.
I suspect their answer would include a response along the lines that “Economies exist in one of three states; either they grow, stagnate, or decline”. But as we are increasingly aware, chasing after relentless GDP growth is putting us on a collision course with the impacts of climate change and resource depletion. And true sustainability has three equally important dimensions – economic, ecological and social – yet the latter two get pretty short shrift under a headlong pursuit of growth.
So rather than being cowed by the threat of stagnation or decline, if we reject that headlong pursuit, shouldn’t we be working towards substituting ‘stabilise’ or ‘mature’ for ‘stagnate’? Shouldn’t it be “Economies exist in one of three states; either they grow, stabilise, or decline”?
Which of the three options would we then choose to pursue?
Which would provide real quality of life, a real liveable and sustainable city?
Because of course, for those who live here, Cambridge is place not space. It’s a place (in fact, a collection of places) to which we have an emotional attachment which is intrinsic to our quality of life.
One of the key academic texts on this subject, Place and Placelessness by Edward Relph, is now even more relevant than when it was first published in 1976, and the introduction is worth quoting at length:
“One of my main aims has been to identify the variety of ways in which place is experienced, and to do this four main themes have been developed:
- First, the relationships between space and place are examined in order to demonstrate the range of place experiences and concepts;
- Second, the different components and intensities of place experience are explored, and it is argued that there are profound psychological links between people and the places which they live in and experience;
- Third, the nature of the identity of places and the identity of people with places is analysed; and
- Fourth, the ways in which sense of place and attachment to place are manifest in the making of places and landscapes are illustrated.
“The essence of the argument relating these themes is that distinctive and diverse places are manifestations of a deeply felt involvement with those places by the people who live in them, and that for many such a profound attachment to place is as necessary and significant as a close relationship with other people. It is therefore disturbing that so much planning and remaking of the landscapes proceeds apparently in ignorance of the importance of place.”
As Relph identifies, the growth-at-all-costs proponents do not acknowledge (let alone respect) that emotional attachment, unless they can financialise it and include it on a profit/loss sheet somewhere.
The beautiful mature trees on the Accordia site were saved by the developers not because their intrinisic value was recognised, but because they could be used to justify an increase in the sales price of the houses by £20k. Sadly, Wilton Terrace, Romsey Labour Club on Mill Road, 291 Hills Road and the Flying Pig pub, to name just a few places, have fallen on the wrong side of the developers’ spreadsheet.
When somewhere is portrayed as a space, it’s ripe for occupying – and whatever story is told loudest and most often about that space works to exclude the possibility of other stories. The OxCam Arc is a prime example of this – a ‘spatial imaginary’ which over time is becoming the taken-for-granted representation of the area.
Are we happy to let this Local Plan concretise (literally) the idea of Cambridge as some depersonalised growth opportunity, a ‘Fast City‘ hawked round the world to the highest investor?
Of course, there will be the usual nods to preserving the square kilometre of heritage sites in the city centre – find me the marketing material for a Cambridge development which doesn’t include punts and Kings College Chapel, no matter how irrelevant it is to the location. But as for the rest of the city – it’s open season for the development industry.
We can see from the Bidwells report, and from similar pronouncements by other pro-growth lobbyists, that they are not content with what these Local Plan proposals offer them, and we know they have huge financial incentives to push for more, and huge resources to deploy behind their campaign.
It will be hard to counter the loud voices which offer a comfortingly simplistic message that massive development is the way to tackle the city’s problems with unaffordable housing and social inequality – but as I’ve discussed before, that is a misrepresentation of the wider forces at work.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”