Oxford Futures 3 full report

30 September 2013

OXFORD FUTURES – THE WAY WE LIVE

On 10th September the third event in the series ‘Oxford Futures’ was held, under the title of ‘The Way we Live’. On this occasion the event was organised by the Academy of Urbanism, The Royal Society for the Arts, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford City Council, and the consultancies URBED and Jon Rowland Urban Design, with Oxford Civic Society providing support and publicity. The event was heavily over-subscribed and registration enquiries were received from far outside Oxford.

The sub-title of the event was ‘How can our neighbourhoods be fit for 21st-century living?’ The keynote speaker at the afternoon symposium at Oxford Brookes was John Worthington, founder member of the highly respected consultancy DEGW.

In an inspiring talk, John emphasised that architects design spaces, but people make places; the city is a product of civic society, the result of a balance between ‘participative’ and ‘regulatory’ democracy – ‘collaborative urbanism’. Barriers to success he identified as centralised decision-making, an adversarial culture and dependency – ‘leaving it to them’! A successful city can be defined as organic, ambiguous, non-hierarchical, networked, and accessible – a stage for chance encounters.

The dynamism of cities involves a mosaic of communities which maybe formal, informal or even virtual, but which live, practice and learn continuously, and are constantly engaged. Cities evolve from an individual centre to networked conurbations, which compete with each other but fundamentally support the network.

The goals of planning should be to support economic success, and to ensure equitable distribution of resources. A sustainable future for cities will involve embracing the challenges of climate change and technology, and improving the quality of life for all. More important than the plan is the engagement of society in its formulation; the focus should be on shaping change, not making form. We should understand and accept risk, share understanding, collaborate and learn from others.

Next, Peter Studdert, former County Council Director of Joint Planning for Cambridge’s Growth Areas spoke on ‘Building a consensus in favour of growth and quality’. He expressed the view that the regulation of the development ‘market’ by Local Planning Authorities was probably about the least effective mechanism possible for delivering functional communities and economic growth – a ‘bone-headed way’!

Despite his pessimism, comparisons of the Oxford situation with what Cambridge has achieved and how provided some fascinating insights. Peter’s former job-title gives a clue to a fundamental point: the County took responsibility for joint planning for agreed growth areas across administrative boundaries. Cambridge Futures, a collaboration between the City Council and the University, was created and examined seven development scenarios, reaching the conclusion that no single option was right – a balanced approach should be followed. The complexity of the ‘chaotic’ planning system was alleviated by the adoption of a ‘Memorandum of Cooperation’ across 8 Local Planning Authorities, and councillors visited a variety of locations to observe practice elsewhere. The key to success was the five ‘C’s’ – communities, connectivity, climate change and creating character, above all involving collaboration. The result is some wonderful examples of excellent contemporary residential and commercial development.

Richard Webber discussed ‘What type of neighbourhoods does the Oxford region need?’ He explained the mosaic neighbourhood classification system, involving detailed analysis of the region’s demographics. To attract workers, the attractiveness of the region is as important as the job: in choosing where to live people select neighbours, neighbourhoods, and communities, not just houses. Richard identified five categories of social groups for which there is a currently a shortage of accommodation, and posed a number of questions needing answers when planning future housing development. What type of worker will the city region attract? What kind of housing, neighbourhood and community will be attractive to particular social groups? Where will they be employed? Where should housing be relative to public transport systems? How will the values of different social groups be reflected in style and character of housing?

Adrian Colwell, Head of Strategic Planning at Cherwell District Council described the planning for the proposed ‘ecotown’ outside Bicester. The expiry of the current Local Plan causes significant difficulties, with numerous appeals and 11 Judicial Reviews in the past year. The new Core Strategy is intended to be adopted in 2014, with the basic themes of opportunity, safety and health, environmental concern, accessibility and value. It is interesting that while Cherwell DC has a joint management team with South Northamptonshire, only now in response to the newly-introduced statutory obligation to cooperate is a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ being worked out with Oxford.

The foci for development in Cherwell District are Banbury and Bicester, but despite the close proximity to, and good connections with, Oxford there seemed little consideration of the preparation of an integrated development plan, and no reference to transport issues, which are the responsibility of the County Council. Notable issues are the phenomenon of 5.9m visitors per year to the Bicester Village retail centre, and the consideration of a limited review of the Green Belt boundaries at Kidlington Airport.

Georgia Butina Watson, Head of Department of Planning and Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University described the inheritance Oxford enjoys, characterised by its different communities, architecture and natural features of water, open spaces and greenery, and the possibilities for learning lessons from elsewhere against this background. The introduction of trams, and the encouragement of cycling were the two principal suggestions for addressing issues of connectivity. She implied that improvements in city environments could be achieved by more widespread adoption of shared space concepts and changes in traffic behaviour, citing examples from the US, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and London, and suggested that changes in attitudes and behaviour could be initiated by ‘temporary urbanism’ – periodic or short-term road closures and temporary occupation of open spaces for community activities.

These talks were followed by a series of discussion workshops; that dealing with the delivery of a better city region concluded that leadership was needed, that the current mechanisms were dysfunctional, and that there was a massive problem with resourcing, but an opportunity for a wider authority, such as the Local Enterprise Partnership, or even Central Government, to alleviate the situation. There was a fundamental need to create a realistic vision, comprising not just fine words, but a proper spatial plan for the city region, and for this to be achieved by much more effective partnership and collaboration.

The group discussing the creation of balanced and cohesive communities concluded that the high demand for housing in Oxford should allow the setting of high standards, but an essential was the establishment of a fit-for-purpose county-wide plan, only achievable by genuine cross-boundary collaboration between authorities. This plan should have a perspective of 50 years, and involve the coordination of views across all communities. The current structures were incapable of delivering such a plan, but Local Authorities should use the resources of community and voluntary groups, including by establishment or reinvigoration of neighbourhood groups or parishes, and exercise a coordinating role. Implementation by developer-led teams, as distinct from builders could improve the quality of development.

Regarding transportation, there is a need to improve the travelling experience and close the gap between the aspiration of planners and the reality of provision. Car-centric mind-sets need to be altered by making alternatives more attractive. Cycling needs to be promoted as a genuinely realistic mode for all, with provision of safe and convenient facilities, not just within new developments, but to connect communities. Discouragement of car use by limiting parking, and facilitating public transport with financial incentives, and simplified ticketing should be considered.

Developments should be high-density, but located on transport routes, to reduce car use and improve viability of public transport. Serious research into the likely impact of homeworking, technological developments and freight consolidation should be carried out to predict patterns of behaviour and transport requirements. Transport should not be subject to political considerations, but to the social, environmental and economic needs of the community. For Oxford, some current needs are clear and could easily be addressed now; examples are the ‘eastern arc’ and the Witney to Oxford route.

Financing of development could be facilitated by making the most of existing infrastructure and the maximum exploitation of opportunities; the example of the commercial opportunities potentially associated with sites near the railway station was cited. Existing housing density could be increased, and encouragement could be given to co-housing and self-build (as is being done in Bicester) through planning policy. Development risk could be mitigated by more specific spatial planning; joint venture development vehicles could facilitate good development, and the Oxford region should make much better use of the research and planning expertise available through its two universities.

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The afternoon symposium at Oxford Brookes University was followed by an evening public debate at the Town Hall with presentations from Jon Rowlands, Principal of consultants Jon Rowlands Urban Design, Gary Young, of the architects and planners Farrells, and Wulf Daseking, former Director of Development, City of Freiburg im Breisgau.

Jon Rowlands highlighted some characteristics of housing development UK: conservatism – little fundamental change in suburbia since the 1930s; domination of the market – 10 housebuilders build 50% of housing; UK homes at the bottom of the European league for house and room sizes; short-term development strategies, with no longer-term perspective; dis-empowerment of housing customers; declining scores on the Audit Commission’s Quality of Life indicators; design stagnation – for example, no for provision for homeworking despite 60% of new businesses being started at home.

Gary Young explained that Farrells are the masterplanners for the Bicester ‘ecotown’ development, for which he quoted densities of 30 to 40 dwellings per hectare, and an anticipated shift of 60% in travel mode from car to public transport for residents. He identified 10 principles for successful development:

  1. build sustainably;
  2. engage proactively with communities, and engage future generations;
  3. create a social mix and balanced communities;
  4. create attractive alternative transport solutions to the car before occupation – make the pedestrian ‘king of the public realm’, humanise the ring road;
  5. consider landscaping and planting as primary infrastructure, not a bolt-on extra;
  6. allow for 40% green infrastructure;
  7. fit the new into the context – build on the character of the old, update old solutions like courtyards, squares, village greens, and make architecture secondary to place;
  8. design for zero net energy consumption, without oddities;
  9. phase development to allow gradual establishment of communities;
  10. grow communities through engagement of as many interests as possible. There should be a vision, delivered progressively by shaping and fitting the pieces of a jig-saw.

Wulf Daseking described his near-30-year involvement with the transformation of Freiburg. He characterised UK cities, and Oxford in particular, as beautiful but strangled by traffic. The imperative of CO2 emissions reductions alone is sufficient justification for reducing traffic in cities, but the streets should be where the culture is celebrated; this can be achieved by much better public transport, and measures like car sharing, and the establishment of car clubs. Cities should be judged by their suburbs, not their cores. UK development seems driven by the attitude of: ‘my house is my castle, my car is my treasure’, but will this persist? The young may have different priorities.

Professor Daseking described some of the characteristics of Freiburg: car ownership at 85 per 1000 residents; 84% of residents living within 250 metres of a tram stop; an ‘open’ public transport system, with a central hub and with all modes connected; transport provision preceding development; all houses built to ‘passivhaus’ energy standards; integrated communities, not socially polarised; 30kph (19mph) speed limit in residential areas. He stressed that city streets should be reserved for people, not cars, nor for people in cars – ‘your children should be worth more than your car’, and children should be asked for their ideas.

In Oxford as in Freiburg the University should be regarded as the ‘queen of the city’ in the chess-game of development. Every city should strive for the accolade ‘the city of the short walk’. In Freiburg a key element in the ability to plan development had been the governance structure as between the Federal Government, the regional (Lande) authority, and the city. The city had sufficient autonomy, including for fund-raising to be able to properly determine policy and to deliver the vision. The city governance structure including a functional mayoral system facilitated control, and such control enabled tight restraint on land prices, and the acquisition of development sites by the city authorities, which could then be allocated for different purposes and to different developers, for specific types of development.

Finally, Wulf Daseking set out the 12 principles applied to Freiburg through the ‘Freiburg Charter’, which he considered could be equally well applied to the successful development of Oxford:

  1. City of Diversity, Safety and Tolerance
  2. City of Neighbourhoods
  3. City of Short Distances
  4. Urban Development along Public Transport Routes – High Density Model
  5. City of Education, Science and Culture
  6. City of Commerce, Economy and Employment
  7. City of Nature and Environment
  8. City of Quality Design
  9. City of Long-Term Planning
  10. City of Communication
  11. Reliability, Obligation and Fairness
  12. City of Cooperation, Participation and Partnership

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