If nature reduces stress, how can we green our cities and make existing spaces open to the public?

Reappraising our towns and cities in an era of climate mitigation and no more ‘business as usual’

I’m reminded of this scene from Dr Zhivago, where he returns from the Eastern Front towards the end of WWI to find his family town house having been seized by the new communist authorities to house some of the homeless.

Dr Zhivago (1965)

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen (Ind) often tells how it was when she saw footage of the London riots that she felt the impetus to get involved in politics. I remember watching on – it happened just after I left the civil service – thinking just how thin the blue line was between ‘business as usual’ and a complete breakdown of the existing system. I’m also of the view that climate change and the continuing of austerity will put further pressures on economy, society and ecology that something will have to give. The state of both the Conservative and Labour Parties on the back of recent elections reflects this, in my view. Society – as we have seen in the past, has split along two broad lines. Today we see this with the rise of BXP and on the liberal-left with the rise of the Greens and the resurgence of the Lib Dems. That plus the short-lived existence of whatever Change UK/Independent Group want to call themselves now.

Trees and green stuff

There were a few reports published recently

…plus this below:

…following an extended exchange between myself and Sam Davies on the RSA’s report and that of the UK 2070 Commission.

One of the first blogposts I wrote was back in 2011 and it was on the privatisation of public spaces. The expert in this field is Anna Minton – see her work here. Now Cambridge is full of privatised green spaces – the college gardens and playing fields. In 2016, I made a short video about playing fields that I once had access to as a child, but no longer do.

On gated playing fields in South Cambridge.

Playing fields at risk

At the Cambridge & South Cambs Local Plan hearings we found out about the various ambitions colleges had to build on playing fields they owned.

Cambridge City Council were batting for the city to keep the spaces green.

For those of you who are interested there is 85mins of debate on Cambridge’s playing fields with some ‘interesting’ statements on usage and need. Also note page 199 of the Cambridge Local Plan 2018 on playing fields here

Should the state have the right to tell individuals or private institutions how they should use their land?

That ultimately comes down to your disposition. In a legal system of complete private property rights, legally purchased or inherited land is yours to do as you feel. At the other end of the spectrum, all land belongs to the Commonwealth whether through a centralised state or a series of autonomous collectives – and everything in between.

Back in 1995 George Monbiot wrote about Land Reform (See here). Fast forward to June 2019 and he and his team were commissioned to write a policy paper on land reform for the Labour Party. His Guardian column on this is here. You can read the full policy paper here.

Bringing planning back

As with many things in history, things come in cycles. In one generation ‘laissez-faire’ economics is popular, in another generation it’s planning. With the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Local Plan 2018, have a look at the policies map. It’s interesting to see how the Grafton Centre/Kite and Newmarket Road east of it is shaded as an area of redevelopment.

190613 Cambridge Local Plan East Road Kite190613 Cambridge Local Plan key

The lack of large public open spaces for North Cambridge is striking

Though some have questioned the accuracy of the map. But the point remains.

Which bits of Cambridge could be opened up to the wider public?

Cambridge on G-Maps looks like this.

In the centre of Cambridge, given what the colleges said about the lack of use of playing fields by their students, I’d like to see the fields of St John’s College turned into a public park.

190613 Cambridge Map StJohnsCollege playing fields as a park

There’s enough space to maintain sports pitches for their use, but given the congestion in town, it’s somewhere that’s about the size of Parker’s Piece and could provide another area of parkland taking some of the pressure off Parker’s Piece, Jesus Green and Midsummer Common. It would also serve as a new public park for West Cambridge.

“Would the Master and Fellows of St John’s College agree to such a move?”

****Heeeelllllllllll No!****

Not in my lifetime anyway (unless that college gets some civically-minded fellows and a such-minded college master). But it provides for an alternative project should they attempt to build on it.

Opening up South Cambridge near some of the new developments.

This is the view on G-Maps of the sports and tennis centre behind the Faculty of Education between Hills Road Sixth Form College and Homerton College.

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

Back in 1924 Homerton College looked like this, with the land the Faculty of Education is now on just behind it.

EPW009790 Homerton College 1924

At the top-left corner is one of the old playing fields of Hills Road Sixth Form College – now built all over. That area that looks like wasteland would become both an industrial unit and a playing field itself before the sports centre & tennis courts were built. At primary school we played football on that open space before it was transformed while I was at secondary school.

Coming back to the existing space…

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

At the bottom left is a ‘tiny little pocket park’ – the concept of which I am against – far preferring larger open spaces that people can play team games on. I’d be tempted to put four of the outdoor tennis courts on the roof of the indoor tennis courts next to them, move the Faculty of Education’s car park underground, and convert that whole space into open park land.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view.jpeg

…the reason being that you have a series of medium-high density blocks of flats (the ‘Magna’ development) plus a private cram college just north of them – by the popular Cambridge Cookery School.

At a more distant view just south of the railway station, you can see more playing fields on both sides of the railway line. These are Cambridge’s ‘southern lungs’ and no, you are not building on them! You can see Homerton COllege at the top right, and just below it a private language college. The road running along the bottom right west-east is Luard Road. A cycle bridge over the railway line could link up with Porson Road and Trumpington Road in the west, taking a fair amount of cycle traffic off of Long Road.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view2.jpeg

The playing fields at the bottom-centre were the ones in the video I referred to as being publicly accessible in my childhood. No longer. Given the development of flats and the private language colleges, plus the expansion of Hills Road, I’d like to think some urban designers could come up with a solution to open those up to the public as public parks without compromising the security of the institutions or those in them.

Replacing real grass with fake grass

One of the institutions at the Local Plan hearings was The Perse Upper School (one of the oldest private schools in the area) – have a listen to their representative here. While making the case that it wasn’t in their interests to reduce their sports facilities, she was questioning the designation of its playing fields as open space (thus barring development).

190613 Cambridge Local Plan Long Road

…but the open space was designated anyway, council planners successfully making the case. Note in recent years there has been the conversion of a large amount of that open grass space into all weather/artificial sports pitches, incorporating about 20 tennis courts.

190613 Perse Map photo view.jpeg

One of the things that has been a persistent public policy issue in Whitehall and Westminster is the role of private schools and the huge problems of inequality in the UK (noting this article from the start of the year). That debate is outside of the scope of this blogpost. What for me is definitely within it is the role that all of Cambridge’s institutions have to play in *increasing* the wellbeing of all of those who make up our city.

In answering that question, I think George Monbiot’s paper for Labour is very timely as it calls on politicians to reappraise the issue of land reform, and to consider land as a collective resource. With the pressures of inequalities, the uncertainties of Brexit and an already-happening climate and ecological crisis, I can’t see how the hoarding of land (especially land with high financial value in urban areas) is going to be sustainable. That then creates a further challenge on how to manage and preserve the high quality landscapes such as the college gardens and The Backs that form part of the Cambridge Conservation Areas.


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