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Four ways Cambridge could grow - but they all mean compromise

Ying Jin at the Cambridge University Department of Architecture. Picture: Keith Heppell
Ying Jin at the Cambridge University Department of Architecture. Picture: Keith Heppell

Employment growth is increasing so quickly in Cambridge that the economy is being pushed gradually out of balance.

With employment being the driver of economic growth, a study by Cambridge Ahead and the University of Cambridge has shown that if nothing is done by the mid 2020s, the city’s economic growth will falter.

The bubble will burst as people start to leave the Greater Cambridge area due to rising house prices, rising rents, increased multiple occupancy and longer commutes all taking their toll on quality of life.

Businesses, unable to find the workforce they need, would then be forced to follow and the economy would start to decline.

“Already companies are making decisions,” said Ian Mather, chair of Cambridge Ahead. “They are not moving away from Cambridge but they are expanding elsewhere.”

Dr Yin Jin is leader of the Cities and Transport Research Group at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture. Using recent employment growth data from the university’s Centre for Business Research, he has been able to define four alternative future scenarios which reflect different rates and patterns of change in the city and the wider Combined Authority.

The scenarios give policy makers an insight into how Cambridge’s growth could be influenced.

But each means a different compromise.

“Cities function in a certain way, they need to be looked after and you need to be thinking now about this future,” said Cambridge Ahead CEO Jane Paterson-Todd.

“These aren’t considered as good or bad scenarios, they are just scenarios that need to be looked at.”

Dr Jin said he and his team are presenting the scenarios as “what ifs?” that are based on past experiences both in this region and other parts of the world.

The study, while sponsored by Cambridge Ahead, is completely independent and at this stage comes with no recommendations, just modelled outcomes.

He explained: “The politicians will then need to work with the stakeholders of each community to develop specific solutions in the local planning process, which may well involve mixing and matching different scenario ingredients and difficult trade-offs. They will need to negotiate, which means compromises.

“Our task as the modellers is to provide what we have to inform such a debate.”

He said different parties will naturally prefer different growth strategies, or a different mixture of each. This can come down to an individual level, but there will also be different preferences for residents and businesses. Business clusters have their particular logic, Dr Jin explained. Each cluster is like a bonfire. It’s very difficult for you to lift it up and put it somewhere else.

However, if you have the right material you can guide how it spreads and, in doing so, the productivity of Greater Cambridge, which is overheating, could be shared to the north of the Combined Authority area.

“The aim is to harness the momentum of growth and channel it to parts that can accommodate this growth in a sustainable way,” Dr Jin said. “If we understand people’s and business’s needs there is a better chance that we can help spread this growth to benefit the communities.”

The study

The studies of the scenarios have so far been focused on the balance between jobs, housing and transport, in terms of housing affordability, access to jobs, cost of living, wage pressures and growth in rush hour traffic. This provides some of the fundamentals for looking at how to build or improve each neighbourhood, so that the developments can enhance the natural environment, local access to services and training, social cohesion and the quality of life across the Combined Authority and beyond.


Accepts higher densities and either taller or more compact buildings in new developments away from the medieval centre of the city.

This concentrates future employment growth within the existing footprint of the city, and both jobs and houses would be built around Cambridge’s two railway stations, and the proposed Cambridge South station on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

More homes built in Cambridge, fewer in surrounding towns and fringe villages.

Risk of rising rents in Cambridge, if the high infrastructure costs hamper delivery of housing in dense areas.

Huge rise in jobs in Cambridge, with below-trend employment growth beyond.

Risk of higher wages if the rents rise

Commuting within the city increases more than in-commuters, offering major opportunities to walk and cycle to work

Major boost to business interactions within the city and to London, particularly around the rail stations

Wider Fringes

This allows growth to occur around the edges of the city, away from the historic city. It would allow lower densities and heights in the new developments. However, the less compact development would increase the spread of the city in most directions.

More homes built in South Cambs

Jobs grow around the fringes of the city

Minimal growth in commuting into the historic city; opportunities to walk and cycle to work within each new neighbourhood, but cross-commuting between the new fringe neighbourhoods will increase road traffic outside the historic city

Avoids major rises in rents and wages in City and South Cambs because of increased housing supply around new jobs. Demand for housing and housing rents to rise in East Cambs and Hunts.

Major boost to the mass of fringe business clusters such as the IT and Life Sciences campuses


Growth is encouraged to occur in the market towns and larger villages in East Cambs, Huntingdonshire and Fenland for both jobs and housing, with good job/home balance in garden towns/villages and urban extensions. Some of the garden towns and villages could grow into substantial settlements over time.

More homes built in East Cambs, Hunts and Fenland

Jobs in East Cambs, Hunts and Fenland double

Housing rent growth eases in Cambridge and South Cambs.

Rents in East Cambs, Huntingdonshire and Fenland rise for greater demand and neighbourhood amenities

Cost of living and wages move in line with housing rents

Businesses focus on their own operations with self-sufficient travel to work areas such that they are able to function in dispersed locations without major transport improvements

Pressures ease for in-commuting to Cambridge and rush-hour traffic within Cambridge

Business clustering in City and South Cambs remains static, but there is a major boost to the scale of business activities in the market towns and larger villages

Transport Corridors

This would allow growth to occur from the city outwards and across the Combined Authority, but only along enhanced transport corridors linking the city to the market towns and larger villages.

Jobs grow more evenly throughout the Combined Authority area

Housing grows slightly in Cambridge and moderately in South Cambs

Rents in Cambridge remain steady, with slight increases beyond the City in South Cambs for more balanced supply/demand

Wage pressures ease somewhat in spite of above trend job growth in Cambridge and surrounding areas,

Wages rise in the north and west of the Combined Authority for new skills and jobs there

Commuting along all road and transit corridors rises by car and transit, with first- and last-mile walking and cycling. Major investments in transport infrastructure and services required

Faster and higher quality transport enables interaction along the transport corridors with one another and with London, providing a boost to business to form new clusters

Read more in the Cambridge Futures Project series:

Why growth forecasts for Cambridge are well off the mark

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