Fragile Ideas Part 1: the challenge of developing historic university cities

Historic Cambridge is known for its enchanting architecture and open spaces.

Historic Cambridge is known for its enchanting architecture and open spaces.

This first post in a series of three examines the challenges that different types of city face in engaging their universities as a source of growth.

To the north west of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, on the edge of a city that was once a rural English town with an august yet peaceable academic tradition, bulldozers roar across a 150 hectare site carving out roads from the musty Fen soil to connect soon-to-be-built houses, labs and community facilities. To the north east of the city, three lane traffic jams snake back from the Cambridge Science Park on to the motorway again, leading to angry opinion pieces in the local press and proposals for the construction of an underground – in the Fens, surely not?

Yet such is the pace of change in Cambridge, the UK’s, if not Europe’s, preeminent university city. It echoes a trend seen in many university cities across the world, from Boston to Singapore to Stockholm. Knowledge-based growth is proving to be just as disruptive to the fabric of cities as industrial growth was two centuries previously. New people, notably from across the globe, are flooding into these smart cities at a rapid pace and doing new things – all of which requires new or at least re-purposed spaces.

For one group of cities the challenges are magnified by the fact that the industrial revolution passed them right by. Cities like Leiden in the Netherlands, Heidelberg in Germany, Uppsala in Sweden and Cambridge itself dozed through the industrial revolution, largely retaining their medieval town plans and character. Cambridge even stopped the railway, making sure the city’s station was placed on the outskirts of the Victorian city so as not to disrupt the Fellowship with the allure of a night out in London.

Today these medieval university cities are hemorrhaging; Cambridge’s population grew by 13% over the past 10 years, matching the growth rate of London. Not only have the city’s universities exploded in size, around them an ecosystem of research institutes, spin-offs and smart multi-nationals has taken root, growing like ivy over ancient facades. And the result is much the same. What was once a pleasant and manageable augmentation to a university city, a handful of intelligent spin-offs and a few larger research partners, nourished by a soil rich in ideas now grows relentlessly, threatening to choke the very fabric of the city on which it depends.

Cambridge has become a very difficult place to live in. House prices are amongst the highest in the country outside of London and well beyond the modest salary of an up-coming researcher, especially if that researcher comes from a low-income nation. Schools are full to bursting. The morning bike traffic is reminiscent of Beijing twenty years ago – without the Mao suits, sadly.

The 150 hectar new North West site at Cambridge

The 150 hectar new North West site at Cambridge

What to do? Cambridge is building out. The North West development, funded by the university itself, will see 1,300 new homes constructed in Phase One. A new town, Cambourne, is already up and running and another is planned. This diffuse pattern of relatively low density growth, in an area with few other urban attractions or centres of employment, is playing havoc with traffic as thousands commute in each morning. A new toll road is the uninspiring solution. Uppsala, just north of Stockholm, is building up. Apartment blocks of between 8-10 stories now ring the medieval core. Whilst disruptive to the eye and a target of local protest, these tall blocks allow the city to maintain its bikable, academic feel and no one is demanding an underground – yet. For Uppsala the challenges are more cultural, how do you make people from around the world feel at home in a very Swedish city?

The Knowledge Age and the Urban Age are now weaving themselves together in a manner that has much potential – though many pitfalls.  Cities are inherently well suited to amplifying knowledge production, bringing many people with different ideas into close proximity. The best ideas, as many of us know, also require space to develop and tend to burst out during moments of distraction or rest – seldom during traffic jams. The knowledge-based city must take a different form from the industrial city – or medieval city. Finding this form is a purposeful challenge for modern urban planning.


3 thoughts on “Fragile Ideas Part 1: the challenge of developing historic university cities

  1. Pingback: Microsoft’s New European R&D Centre: can you guess which programme its inspired by? | Building on Ideas

  2. Pingback: Fragile Ideas II: can universities save their cities? | Building on Ideas

  3. Pingback: Fragile Ideas III: the medium-sized city and building for beyond average | Building on Ideas

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