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Cambridge's growth needs to change, and communities must decide how this happens

The River Cam by Kings College in Cambridge
The River Cam by Kings College in Cambridge

A University of Cambridge and Cambridge Ahead report looks into the city's future.

Ian Mather and Jane Paterson-Todd of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell
Ian Mather and Jane Paterson-Todd of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridge is increasingly being thrown out of balance and without a change in the way the region is growing, the light of the city’s knowledge-intensive economy will be snuffed out.

That was the finding of a four-year study that has shown that employment in the city has been expanding significantly more than previously thought.

If nothing is done by decision-makers, it is believed the city will reach ‘peak Cambridge’ in the mid-2020s and growth will take a downturn as employers struggle to find people who will put up with long commutes or high rents for small, shared living spaces.

With this imbalance continuing to broaden, Cambridge Ahead sponsored the Cambridge Futures Project, a study which has been carried out independently by Cambridge University researchers.

Cambridge Futures Project: the costs of each growth strategy
Cambridge Futures Project: the costs of each growth strategy

Dr Ying Jin, leader of the Cities and Transport Research Group at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, has created a model that shows how four different strategies could control growth, and help spread the city’s ‘bonfire economy’ throughout the region.

Dr Jin says that the scenarios reflect the wide range of different ways of development seen in university cities around the world. Lund in Sweden has recently planned densification along a new tramline; Heidelberg has expanded its suburban fringes; the Silicon Valley expansions in California between Stanford University at Palo Alto and San Jose, the capital of Santa Clara County, have succeeded in attracting growth in jobs from San Francisco, thus dispersing the pressures for development; the fast road, rail and tram links in the Rhineland of Germany and Randstad in the Netherlands have enabled many medium and small cities to become global players, developing their own specialisms in jobs and businesses.

He expects that as the discussions on the scenarios proceed, new variants may emerge.

But each strategy has a compromise – and a cost – to consider. Ian Mather, chair of Cambridge Ahead, said: “We’re not saying it’s got to be done a certain way. We’re putting it out there that there are trade-offs. There is a problem. It needs to be fixed. There are various ways of doing it but we need to understand what the costs are for each different solution.

“This is a very sound way of approaching what is a quite complicated problem.”

Matthew Bullock, master of St Edmund’s College, has led the project for Cambridge Ahead.

He explained the trade-offs for each strategy: “With densification you have a lot of expenditure around the railway stations and you have massive expenditure on urban infrastructure because you’re going to have many more people living much more densely. Our particular environment requires a lot of support for land and sewage and urban stormwater.”

At King’s Cross, £1billion was spent on infrastructure before any buildings were started.

He continued: “Fringe growth is very car-based. You have a lot of expenditure on trunk roads and junctions. Dispersal would involve a lot of road transport because you’re pushing development out, whereas transport corridors would require a lot of expenditure on transit routes.”

There are also 34 characteristics of quality that need to be considered – things like open spaces, community buildings, tree planting and easy mobility in new development areas.

Mr Bullock continued: “People have very subjective views about those characteristics, which is fine, but the planners and politicians have got to work out which plans they prefer. Then you’ve got to consider cost and speed of delivery.”

What has been developed by the Cambridge Futures Project is a scoresheet to weigh each strategy, and Cambridge Ahead plans more ways for communities to get involved in the conversation.

“With the City Deal gateway reviews coming up, it’s important that we start to move this forward and for politicians to get to the point where they’ve had a dialogue with the population and we make some decisions,” said Mr Bullock, “because the gap gets wider every year.”

Read more in the Cambridge Futures Project series:

Why growth forecasts for Cambridge are well off the mark

Four ways Cambridge could grow - but they all mean compromise

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