Alternative solutions for growth
On Wednesday 30 January, Matthew Bullock came to The Perse to deliver the Lent 2019 Community Lecture, in partnership with The Cambridge Building Society.
Matthew Bullock has been Master of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge since 2014 and founder of Cambridge Ahead; a business dedicated to the successful growth of Cambridge. He presented the results of his research modelling different growth scenarios for the city of Cambridge to discuss whether we can maintain our current economic growth without compromising quality of life for the residents. This most recent work will be presented to local and national governments to aid in long term planning.
Matthew began by discussing what he views as a “community” and the importance of information in bringing people together. He suggested that it was only with enough information that communities can truly shape their own future and explained how his research is designed to work in tandem with other bodies to provide the most holistic approach to city planning. He explained that communities live as one and change over time meaning they can be viewed like a system with inputs, outputs and fluxes.
This systems approach to planning is integral to the notion of sustainability and Matthew suggested we must consider the community at a regional level to fully balance our growth. People and businesses moving into an area represent the inputs while outputs would be a loss of employees and a fall in economic growth. Within the system people require a balance between housing and transport to form a sustainable model and when there is an imbalance strains would begin to show. Matthew suggested that with careful modelling and consideration of the merits of approaches in other cities Cambridge could continue to expand economically without jeopardising the quality of life for residents, which would result in a collapse of the system.
Currently Cambridge has a growth rate of 2.2% for employment and 1.2% for housing. This data combines the entire city but Matthew pointed out that the biggest discrepancies between the growth rates of our considerations can be found in South Cambridge; even with the new housing projects happening there. Cambridge has the highest rate of house building for any local council but Matthew argues it is not the number of houses that matters but the location of those houses. Furthermore the houses, he argues, will follow the jobs, meaning that to maintain growth there must be the infrastructure for more business and employment to move into the area.
Overall the figures suggest that Cambridge is currently a highly stressed system with discrepancy between employment and housing costs that are reducing overall quality of life. 13% rise in property prices over the last decade and a widening generational gap seeing children unable to afford to live near their parents has created tensions and risks the future of Cambridge. Matthew also pointed out that all this leads to an increase in commuter times with many lower income workers being forced out of the city but continuing to commute in. Environmental impacts of this would include increased congestion and traffic through the centre of Cambridge.
Matthew then began to discusses the modelling work he has taken part in and outlined what the “worst case scenario” would be in growth rates continues as they are. He suggested that by 2051 there would be 200,000 people employed in Cambridge with a population of 800,000. Occupancy would be up and average rents would increase. Together this would push up wages meaning a point would be reached where companies no longer wanted to stay in the city and the economic growth bubble would collapse.
Matthew proposed four different scenarios that could solve the issue. Building up (density change), building out onto green belt land (spreading), moving business to surrounding villages (dispersal) and using existing transport routes to spread (corridors). The work by Cambridge Ahead takes these scenarios and makes projections based on historic data and experiences by other cities.
The example used for the density scenario was the area around King’s Cross where green spaces have been incorporated within high density buildings. This would lead to job growth around the station areas and dwellings would follow making them high in cost and low in space. Costs would include the expense of building water and sewage to the high density buildings and the land itself would be very expensive. This plan would, however, prevent expansion onto green belt land and would encourage the use of the train network. Matthew suggested the train network might become too cramped even with the addition of a third station and many of the residents could end up working in King’s Cross as trains from Cambridge become faster in the future.
For spreading onto the greenbelt the example of Heidelberg (a German city twinned with Cambridge) was used – jobs grew around the city so growth in the centre is minimised. Housing in the green belt is cheaper for the developers and can keep costs down. Costs would include increased infrastructure outside the city such as roads and junctions. There would also be an environmental cost to this option.
Dispersing to outlying villages such as Royston, Baldock and up to Ely is another option being considered. Job growth would be low as businesses would not be able to cluster and share their ideas as easily. Matthew suggested that the technology companies vital to Cambridge’s knowledge-based economy would also be lost to Singapore as it would not be so easy to share ideas. Housing would move to the surrounding towns and cities saving the greenbelt but there would have to be improvements to existing travel infrastructure to maintain population growth rates in those areas.
Finally the corridors model was based on an idea from the city of Lund which has not taken form yet but would work by focussing economic growth along the 8 main routes into Cambridge (by both road and rail). This would involve some development along the greenbelt but could be contained along specific routes. The largest financial cost of this option would be the improvements to transport but it would allow businesses to continue to cluster and share ideas. Matthew suggested that this option may be the best choice in terms of the economy and the environment but pointed out it was a decision the community would have to make together.
This information should be shared with the community as well as city planners to allow us to make a decision that would most benefit us all. Matthew finished his speech with the message that “if we don’t manage our growth we will ruin our city”. In this way it is clear that understanding the options to prevent economic collapse are of vital importance if we are to maintain sustainable high growth in Cambridge.
The Perse holds termly Community Lectures, open to all in the community, whether or not they have a link to the School. Information about upcoming lectures can be found here.