Sam Davies

For those who live here, Cambridge is ‘place’ not ‘space’

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.”

I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.

Don’t forget a regularly updated list of local planning applications can be found on this page here.

Sam Davies

9 comments

  • Rats, when kept in laboratory conditions, live happily side by side UNTIL overcrowding occurs and the violence starts.

  • Thank you for this incredibly thought out and sensitive report. I read it and thought ‘why on earth haven’t any of our elected representatives previously explained the situation’. The answer is of course, that Sam is bringing a properly analytical and studious approach to very serious concerns, for which I thank you, Sam. But how worrying that our councillors haven’t acknowledged the kinds of issues that you are highlighting.

  • Hi Sam

    That is an absolutely brilliant account of the fault lines between the depersonalised economic narrative and the realities of lived human experience. As you so rightly say, the worth of a place is more than a financial formula: it’s in those hard-to-measure but still vitally important elements that support the quality of life. A city should be good for people to live in and feel they have a stake in the pace of development. Commercial interests tend to exert a lot of pressure on decision makers and too easily wave away the collateral damage to both the human and natural environment. It took a massive amount of time and energy by local residents (I was one of them) to protect those mature trees on the Brooklands Avenue site. The outcome wasn’t so good with other efforts to restrain the dash for cash of property developers, regardless of the visual and communal blight.

    Thank you so much Sam for your tireless efforts and your concern for the long-term consequences of bad planning decisions.

    Thelma Lovell

  • The population as a whole in the South of the City must stand and fight the concreting over of what is left green once and for all. Cambridge as we know it will be destroyed by the wanton greed of a few developers; there is no requirement for so much house-building – we must protect and we must fight for our way of life.

  • Dear Sam, Thank you for so beautifully defining the elusive and ‘priceless’ qualities that have made Cambridge such an attractive place to live, until now.

  • I was sorry that COP26 did not identify ‘growth’ as one of the key drivers towards climate change. The development lobby sees any lack of growth as an existential threat that is more immediate than the existential threat of climate change. Developers should show how their development actually reduces the progress of climate change. Another charge against developers is that they are not prepared to pay for adequate amenities. Nine-wells development does not have a local space where children can play ball games. The sunken main playground floods in winter. The larks no longer sing. I wish you all the best in the battle to control the concretising over of Cambridge.

  • You are, Sam, one of the most articulate and intelligent City Councillors we have ever elected. Thank you for the detailed explanations in all your reporting in highlighting the problems we face with the continual expansion of our beloved city. Well done for keeping us up-to-date.

  • As a person born in Cambridge, to Cambridge born parents, I have felt for a while a disquiet, an oppressive feeling, and powerlessness. Recently I have discovered that there is a name for it: solastalgia (https://climatepsychologyalliance.org/handbook/484-what-is-solastalgia). The place I call home, that I identify as part of me, has been damaged, and in places made unrecognisable, by people from far away who view this space simply and only as a column of numbers on a spreadsheet. This space they imagine is an abstract representation akin to that of a mathematician who works with geometry – stick in a different set of numbers and a whole new space is magic-ed into being. Hey presto! it’s a business park. Oh, no, it’s a shopping centre… But it was my Home, a place that had meaning for me, and for many others. But that meaning, my feeling of attachment, is nowhere on that balance sheet, and nor are the lives of birds, insects, trees, wildflowers, ….

  • Obviously I read all your responses to every post, and all the emails too, and I’m always touched by the thoughtfulness which shines through in your contributions But this post in particular seems to have hit a very tender spot. And what worries me is that people are experiencing this sense of detachment and disenfranchisement and distrust at precisely the same time as the City Council is relying on a strategy to ‘partner’ more closely with residents:

    “We can’t deliver Our Cambridge on our own. We need residents to get involved in helping guide the work we do and the goals we are working towards, and to work in partnership with us to create a better future for everyone in Cambridge. With your support, we can make sure that the Our Cambridge programme delivers what matters to you and your communities.” https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/news/2021/11/03/our-cambridge-programme-to-transform-how-council-provides-services-and-tackles-challenges-ahead

    That partnership will not be possible if residents don’t feel like they are afforded a real say in the future of the city, rather than just being expected to put up, shut up and pay up.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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