If Cambridge evaluated previous phases of its growth over time, what lessons could we apply over the next half century?

Summary: What would a critical look at the past couple of hundred years tell us about how to proceed – combined with what we know about a changing climate and research on mental health, green spaces and urban design?

It was three years ago almost to the day that I started a short project making short video clips using a smartphone about Cambridge the town and how it grew.

Cambridge – shaping our city

The inspiration behind this (other than taking my mind away from the EURef fallout) was a book by Peter Bryan called Cambridge – The Shaping of the CityIf you live in/around Cambridge, pop into G. David booksellers by the Guildhall, they have a stack of updated copies going for about £7.

The growth of Cambridge is not a new phenomenon

Eglantyne Jebb told us this 110 years ago. And local historian Allan Brigham who runs the Town not Gown history walking tours reminded us of what happened in the 1800s that Eglantyne so succinctly wrote about.

Allan Brigham to the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations, Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.

The history of Cambridge housing

A year ago, historian Dr Tony Kirby of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History gave this talk on Cambridge’s housing.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – join us here!

How big should Cambridge be? How big could it have been?

One of the things to remember paradoxically is the stuff that’s easily forgotten. Can you think of some roadworks that seemed to go on forever, but that once complete everything was forgotten about? I can! Over a decade ago Hills Road Bridge – on the main road into Cambridge from the south, was the site of some major road works to build a new archway for the then new guided busway to go under. I knew about it because it interrupted my commute to the railway station and into London. Have a read here. Such battles are easily forgotten.

Other battles include the periodic attempts throughout the 20th Century to expand the borders of the borough of Cambridge, as well as the powers of the borough council.


From a History of Local Government in Cambridge 1835 – 1958.

You can view the rest of the maps here. It’s a cracking read. If you are a local government history geek like me. The map above shows ickle Cambridge just after WWI, with Cherry Hinton and Trumpington outside the borough boundary, the huge area councillors applied for, and the slight expansion they got in 1934 – at which point the boundary of the borough and later the city has largely remained the same.

Expansion of Mill Road in the late 1800s

The residents of the cramped, terraced streets of the People’s Republic of Romsey in Cambridge (you can get the t-shirts here, kids) where properties now go for at least half a million on a good day, was the subject of many a squabble at council meetings in the late 1800s because the homes were not built with modern sanitation even by Victorian standards. The remedial work cost a fortune and a huge amount of inconvenience.

950118 Improving Romsey roads and sewers

Cambridge Independent: 18 Jan 1895 from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“The work would be done to the satisfaction of the surveyor and it would be found afterwards who must pay in Romsey Town…”

Remember this was a year after the very expensive pumping station – today the recently re-opened Cambridge Museum of Technology, was built. And with good reason – our infant mortality rate was stupendously high, and poor sanitation was one of the primary causes. Eglantyne Jebb quotes a figure of 1:8. Today it’s about 4:1000.

From slums to sunshine

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes.jpg

Above – some early council housing in the interwar period, this from 1927 on Green End Road. One of the recommendations from Eglantyne Jebb amongst others was to reduce significantly the density of population in homes, and to give people access to fresh air and green spaces – something notably lacking in Romsey and Petersfield in Cambridge. The various estate plans also were aimed at a new affluent middle class.

350316 new Woodlands Park Girton estate housing.jpg

Cambridge Daily News, 14 March 1935, in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Today, such estates are garden-grabbing developers paradise – such properties are easily snapped up by firms who replace them with a larger number of smaller apartment blocks in the face of our own housing crisis – one in a large part caused by developers manipulating the market to keep house prices (and profit margins) high, combined with a refusal of successive governments to intervene.

Housing density too low to sustain community facilities – too many estates lacking even the basics in post-WW2 Cambridge.

Many of the families living in the central slums were moved out to the new housing estates that became Arbury and King’s Hedges wards.

650325 Arbury and West Chesterton desert estate no facilities

Above – 25 March 1965, Cambridge Daily News in the Cambs Collection

Note these concrete ‘pre-fabs’ in Coleridge, Cambridge from 1946, which would be replaced in the late 1970s.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

You can still see the wartime Nissen huts on the right, only hinting at the former site of the WW1 VD hospital. Prior to that, these were open fields. Today, the main rectangle block of land has back gardens full of trees, and a small recreation ground too.

That said, in this part of town there are not the community facilities that there are in other parts of Cambridge – and in part this is due to the lower population density of the homes built in the 20th Century. It’s worth noting that the residential developments around Cambridge Railway Station – both social and market housing, are built at medium densities, with low-rise blocks of flats up to four stories high. The 20th Century Housing in much of South Cambridge is semi-detached homes.

The post-war housing growth didn’t get rid of the homelessness problem in Cambridge – which was surprisingly vulnerable to economic shocks as the rest of the country. The growth in technology firms and the tourism boom had yet to take effect.

740110 Young homeless people on rise

Above – from 1974 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

And housing problems in Cambridge haven’t gone away today either:

The Cambridge Community Branch of Unite, in November 2015. The organisation is calling for a large council house building programmes, and a policy of rent controls – recalling that in Cambridge house prices are 16x median salaries.

The interaction between councils, developers, residents, and new arrivals.

I’m a little bit sensitive about Cambridge as it’s the only real home I’ve ever known – hence I’m prepared to fight for it, campaign for it and improve it. I don’t buy the ‘like it or leave it’ line. One early group of civic campaigners were the Cambridge Preservation Society, founded in 1928.


Today, known as Cambridge Past, Present and Future, they continue to manage the landholdings that the early campaigners fundraised and purchased nearly a century ago, as well as scrutinising planning applications.

“What are the lessons learnt?”

The first one is the impact that housing has on public health. Again, Eglantyne Jebb told us that – only she did the research and pulled out the data. This had not been done before, which is why she is a civic hero in Cambridge.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Hero: Eglantyne Jebb – who later founded Save the Children. Photo: Palmer Clarke in the Cambridgeshire Collection 

It also forces us collectively to examine what social infrastructure we used to have, why we built it in the first place, and why we either kept it or lost it. For example why did we lose so many community halls and venues in the latter half of the 20th Century, and why are we not building ones of utterly outstanding quality and beauty in the 21st Century. (Or rather, why are we building ones that tick the ‘bare minimum’ box, such as the tiny community rooms on the CB1 estate, the very small Signal Box on the other side of Hills Road, through to the Clay Farm Community Centre in Trumpington which having been there as well is far, far too small. And although not a religious person myself, I find the fact that various religious groups have to hold their gatherings in multi-purpose featureless bland rooms on new estates to reflect very badly on developers. This stands in contrast to the new Cambridge Central Mosque.

Why we need to repeat Eglantyne Jebb’s ground-breaking work over a century later

Along with Margaret Keynes – later Mrs Margaret Hill CBE (daughter of Florence the Mayor, and sister of Maynard the Economist), and Gwen Raverat (the woodcut printer, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin), Eglantyne carried out a rent survey of Cambridge and interviewed people all across the town.

One big challenge we all have to face is the impact of climate change. Put simply, our towns and cities are not nearly resilient enough to deal with more extreme ‘weather events’ – storms, droughts, high winds, heatwaves and mega downpours. At some stage the country is going to have to do an audit on the state of its built environment to work out what work needs to be done and how much it will cost to mitigate the worst of what will hit us.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from many residents and councillors of the problems they have had with newbuild homes in terms of poor quality build. Given how high house prices are, this cannot be good. The problem at the moment is we have no system of post-construction evaluation – i.e. what are properties like after the first year of living in them?

And finally

The new developments we build need to have large open green spaces in them – not ‘pocket parks’ or concrete squares.

Although there is some acceptance in Westminster of the importance of access to nature in improving people’s mental health, we’re yet to see substantial changes in the planning system, and the new development plans put forward by developers and architects. I remain to be convinced.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s