Article Insects, us & the future

Cambridge: a sustainably expanding city?

The city of Cambridge in the south east of the UK is said to be the ‘economic engine’ of the country.

At the start of July, Cambridge was selected to be one of the stages of the Tour De France, and the city swelled to a million that day to watch the cyclists and their support infrastructure roll through for all of 7 minutes, along cobbled streets, past medieval buildings, and out past lush green fields and quaint villages.

Cambridge is also said to be the most desirable place to live in the south of England.It is a city of education, based around an 800 year-old University, with a palpable air of science and culture emanating from the many colleges and sites in and around the city. If you work in one of these fields then Cambridge may offer you unparalleled riches, and it now outstrips it’s main rival Oxford in terms of the business generated through start-up’s developed here, in all sectors, including technology.

As a city it is expanding rapidly: greenbelt and University-owned land, as well as private agri-land, to the north and the south have been purchased and developments have started arising. The population is said to be in a stage of ‘planned growth’ from 130,000 currently to 300,000 within the next 3 years.

But can Cambridge, particularly given the scale of this impending development, be in any way a sustainable city? Will this rapid growth actually damage the fragile infrastructure and natural resources that make this small city on the edge of the Fens so picturesque?

Returning to the city of my childhood, and with 20 years exploring how cities and urban conurbations around the world work, I have a lot of questions about how this place might feed itself, how the transport links might bring people in and out safely, how the local economy can absorb this human growth in such a short space of time, and primarily, if this development can really be justified. Above all, and I write this struggling with a sense of NIMBYism (‘not in my back yard’). I’m mourning the coming loss of 4 sites of wild land, one of which is behind my home (and close to my childhood home) and I have witnessed them transform from orchards, to agricultural trials, to mixed use and a great spot to wander and explore.


Cambridge is a lovely place to wander around. It sits in a bowl-like area of lowland, with the only hill, Castle Hill, with Norman remains, at the Northern edge. From this vantage point, all the city’s landmarks are visible: the university church, Great St Mary’s, the Senate House, and most of the University buildings. Looking online for an aerial photograph, I discover the ‘Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photography’, which I shall let speak for itself.

The iconic view of King’s College chapel is best viewed from the south-west, across the river, with punts drifting by. The University dominates Cambridge, in terms of land and property ownership, and employment. It is a fiefdom, undoubtedly so, and I’ve always been aware of town/gown issues. A current sore-point here amongst the creative community is lack of arts spaces: 2 community-run art galleries that were in temporary short lease spaces have just closed, and are now looking for new venues. There is a strong sense of community here. In my youth I got involved a lot in student activities, and worked college kitchens. Nowadays I’m more interested in town issues, such as the Transition Movement, and events, though it’s easy to connect with and dip in and out of the many resources on offer here. It’s easy to find out what’s going on, and get access to high-level speakers and workshops in any area. Growing up here has given me the lifelong sense that one foot in academia is often a beneficial move.

The market area is a great space to wander around, is busy and filled with a thriving daily market, cafes and private galleries, a great public library, and several arcades and everything that you need of a centre. Mill Road is Cambridge’s independent area, described recently by the Cambridge Evening News as ‘cosmopolitan’, traditionally where independent businesses have thrived or survived. It was to his mum’s house off Mill Road where iconic local boy Syd Barratt returned after fleeing the drug world he inhabited with other members of Pink Floyd.

Across from Castle Hill, on the southern edge, sits Addenbrooke’s Hospital, which is rapidly expanding into a biomedical campus, with Papworth Hospital (currently on the outer edge of the Shire) in the process of moving to the site, and the new building plans for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca having been unveiled this past week. On the other side of the Hospital and running along the city’s SW border is the M11, the artery to London. High-tech companies and the Science Park have found space on the wider fringes, and bigger business development benefits from finding land further out of the city but contained within the Shire.

Local MP, Dr Julian Huppert (LibDem), says of the city he also grew up in; “Cambridge has done phenomenally well – it has grown from a provincial fenland market town with a University, to becoming one of the most economically prosperous cities anywhere. We have £13 billion in revenue just from the high-tech sector alone. It works because it isn’t a big city, but it does have a great sense of community.”

However he acknowledges there are big challenges here, despite and perhaps because of the wealth and prosperity: “certainly there are problems of success –there is a housing crisis, property prices are going up, and large amounts of people wanting to move here, transport problems. Real congestion. Cambridge was always tightly controlled by planners, which is why the villages expanded and then this caused traffic problems and often gridlock by those driving into the city”.

The ‘Local Plan’ is the Cambridge City Council plan to guide development and growth of the city until 2031. The Council submitted their plan to Government back in march, as well as requests for a Community Interest levy, CIL, and public hearings will start in the autumn, under a structure put in place by an independent planning inspector. The Local Plan is peppered with wonderful phrases such as “spatial strategy”, and “area-specific spatial frameworks for the areas of major change (AOMC’s)” and runs to a glorious 492 pages. Apparently sales of it are high.

The CIL is a tax upon developers which will in theory be used to fund infrastructure supporting the new developments, including transport, schools, libraries, and community facilities. One such community centre in one of these new developments, on the Clay Farm site, has already been given the go-ahead, and is planned to be a 4 storey building, combining a hall, a café, library, surgery, and residential.

A competition to name this new building has been launched, and it is due to open next year. I’m not currently aware of how it’s completion is being planned alongside the new development.

For this article I’m principally looking at 4 main sites around the edges of the city where development has been given the green light. They are:

  • the old NIAB site, off Histon Road and bordering the A14, to be re-named Darwin Green 1 & 2;
  • the Huntingdon Road site, currently named NW development (on University land);
  • Northstowe, lying between the villages of Oakington and Longstanton (about 8 miles from city centre) to be built upon the old Oakington Airfield;
  • Trumpington, on the southern tip of the City, at the junction with the M11.

    There are many more sites, from smaller-scale (15 houses) to clusters of up to 1,000, and these are focussed on a range of sites from brown field city-centre, old industrial, to green belt. There are also existing developments in and surrounding the city from the last 20 years the creation of which influence this current round of planning applications.

I spoke with Catherine Bailey, Head of Planning, for local charity, ‘Cambridge: Past, Present and Future’ who have long campaigned for the conservation of the green belt and the special character of Cambridge’s fenland and medieval charm – the tagline on their website is ‘working to keep Cambridge special’. “Our general stance is that land shouldn’t be released from the green belt unless there are very special circumstances. There was a big release in the 2006 plan that freed land to the Northwest of Cambridge. The Government has said that Local Authorities must show that there is housing need in an area and that there must be a 5 year supply. We feel that Local Authorities should find space within the city: brown field sites or sites which could deliver more proposed development.”

I asked Catherine to go into greater detail about the specifics of some of the developments that have gone through or are in the planning process right now, and how the charity has responded to this; “we took the view that it is better to have planned release of land where you can actually create a high-quality community, rather than lots of incremental grabs at little bits of green belt at the edge, where, because of the numbers, 200 houses here, 400 houses there, you don’t get as much planning gain, so you can’t ask for a new primary school, you won’t get the guided bus, or a specific transport development.”

This is where the CIL kicks in on each area of development, and in theory is considered at an early stage of development.Cambridge PPF actively challenges planning applications and works with the Council and developers to enhance the quality of developments around the city, though their role is also split between conserving sites, such as Wandlebury Country Park that they run, as well as promoting a vision for the future of the city, with a range of other partners, charities, and NGO’s.

I’m wondering aloud as I’ve embarked on this enquiry about the range of different groups, such as the River Cam Conservators, or the Cambridge Valley Forum, Sustainability East (part of a UK-wide group looking at adaptability toward climate change) and even the Wildlife Trust (part of a National group), not having enough of a concerted vision for how a sustainable City could look and perform, with all the elements for a sustainable structure in place. I’m also questioning whether the scale of development planned that I’m hearing about will change the size and nature of this city irredeemably, and whether it could be a city in which to contemplate a future. With the change of green field spaces does a person’s idealism and green-hearted values change? Or is that switch between a pastoral to a city mind just a simple fantasy, part remembered from childhood, and diluted by a bohemian, nomadic and free-minded lifestyle?

To find some balance in this debate, and to hear some of the specifics, I spoke to Emma Davies, Senior Sustainability Officer at Cambridge City Council: “The growth agenda in Cambridge set the Council plan of 2006 at 12,500 new homes to 2016, and half of them were in green belt land. Now we are moving forward with our draft local plan to 2031; this includes building 14,000 new homes, including urban extensions, which will mean a small amount of green belt release. We’ve got to find the balance here, as we know that the green belt does maintain character of urban environment. Plan not gone through: lots of opposition to it. Will be discussed in examination process. Some want us to build more!”

Emma’s job gives her control over design and construction issues, so we explored the wider view of sustainable planning, construction, and probably the most important issue, community building – within new neighbourhoods, and between the new developments, and existing local neighbourhoods. “These new developments will give us the opportunity to get in early and work on community building. We (as a Local Council) recognise the importance of this, and have learnt from other developments in the past decade or so where community facilities came on-site much later.” I’m heartened by Emma telling me that the Council has ecologists working on the designs to plan in to sites green and recreational spaces, communal benches, bird boxes, and that all the sustainable design and construction principles and codes are being met and often exceeded (despite the Government recently scrapping them).

Local activist, member of Transition Cambridge, and founder of Camlets (Local Currency Trading System), Peter Pope takes a more sanguine approach to the changes; “Stopping the juggernaut of growth is hard and without more housing, prices continue to climb making life very difficult for key workers and for families born and raised in the city. For the time being, it seems, growth is the only show in town. This growth risks suburbanisation and greater dependency on motor vehicles with the attendant congestion and pollution. But maybe Cambridge can be different.”

In a year or so’s time, if my circumstances haven’t radically changed, perhaps I’ll come back to this issue of Cambridge growth and frame an enquiry that looks at locals and incomers, and explores differing and converging views upon the city, and how community is felt here. Ultimately we can make a home where we are and with the people and resources we find around us. I’ve felt at home instantly in many places I’ve arrived, and yet, this exploration is different: can a home place remain so, despite other homes and special places and newer memories and reflections? Can a home place that is changing so rapidly and is ‘planned growth’, actually act to disconnect an individual from the sense of place?

Should we as a species even put so much perception and emotion onto a place, instead of just concentrating on the self and establishing ourselves within society? As I ponder these wider questions I’m always brought down to earth by knowing that someone within a mile or 2 of me is sitting in a lab or an office or a seminar, thinking through these same thoughts, and creating a wonderful research study to probe them, supported by the ivory tower.

Sitting and looking at the OS map of Cambridge, cunningly spread over 3 maps for those of us to want to get the entire picture of the spread of the wider Shire, but thankfully on a 3 for 2 deal at the local bookshop; it’s clear that the City has been ever so slowly creeping up to it’s natural boundary, pushing past areas with wonderful names such as Dumpling Farm, Harcamlow Way, and Lingey Fen. Cambridgeshire sits on the edge of England’s great fenlands, bordering Norfolk and Suffolk on the eastern edge.

Cambridge City is ringed with pastoral villages: Girton (where I grew up), Histon (which used to have an original dunking lever for trialing women in the village pond to see if they were witches, in the 15th/16th Century), Willingham, Cottenham, to name a few, but all with a distinct character of their own, and strong community spirit, and proud of their links to the City. To have a house with a garden in one of this network of villages is as prestigious as a house in the centre of the City, with different advantages and amenities close at hand. For me, Girton was a wonderful green edge land, with it’s fields, woodland, tracks and community spirit, which was an earthed home to return to after intellectual pursuits in the City.

Moving into what writer Richard Mabey so fittingly called ‘the unofficial countryside’, the key developments of this City are taking place on what I would describe as core triangles of land, pushed up against roadways, as though in the attempt to be tidy, the developers are saying that urban sprawl finds natural boundaries up to road links. But who knows whether the overspill into villages (or new towns on the edge of existing villages such as that at the Northstowe development) will continue once these developments are complete?


I went out to the old Oakington airfield, in the NW of Cambridge, which will be the site for the new town of Northstowe. According to the South Cambs District Council website, and its area action plan (‘AAP’, adopted July 2007), the new town will consist of up to 10,000 homes, with the aim of 4,800 to be built by 2016.

I remember cycling through the airfield as a boy, as it’s disused roads connected my village of Girton, through Oakington, to Longstanton, where my childhood girlfriend lived. How sweet were those pastoral cycle rides past a lake to steal a few kisses and return home late through the fields and fallow land. Today, the site is heavily fenced and protected by a security firm. It’s not clear what they are protecting on the site, or why the public is not allowed to wander through anymore, but I’m led to believe building work will start by the autumn. I’m also informed that a bird of prey, the hobby, is in residence on the old landing strip, and it is a delight to see it catch dragonflies. Another habitat will be lost for a species.

I spoke with a couple who were sunday cycling. He had also grown up locally, in a village on the other side of the city. Although they both had well-paying jobs, they had found themselves living with their 14 year old in his parent’s house again, and unable to buy property in the city centre, had come out to the cheaper fringe, getting a house with more bedrooms and space for less money. Asked about their feelings about the Northstowe development, their answer surprised me: “Well, I’m not looking forward to more houses and more people, but to be honest this village [Longstanton], is a pretty mongrel place – small developments from the 40’s, 50’s, and so on. I’m sure this new town will just blend in to this unpretty place!”


This was the saddest of all my 4 site visits. This development is well underway, with some houses having been built stretching from behind the Waitrose superstore, right to the Trumpington Road Park and Ride. The plan is to extend much further, and the metal fences are already up, and as it is a building site, stray journalist/walkers aren’t welcome. I drove around to the popular nature reserve Byron’s Pool in Grantchester (the great poet swam there while a student), and was shocked to find the development fence pressed right up against this wonderful woodland. On the other side of the fence, a roadway had been built as a perimeter road, and the bulldozers were in, the men in hard hats were measuring and laying, and progress continued, unabated.


NIAB (National Institute for Agricultural Botany) has been a Cambridge institution for many years, and is highly regarded as the leading centre for seed trials and plant research. I had a summer job there on one return back: the work was hard and long, but the money took me off to the Middle East for a year or so. As my job there was ending, NIAB were just starting to get involved in GM trials, and lots of conversations were being had about the ethics of this amongst the staff. I could walk to work, and the short walk took me through woodlands, fields, and an orchard. The orchards were part of the huge Chivers family estate that once was the main apple growers in East Anglia, sadly no more.

Now a portion of the NIAB land from the Huntingdon Road has been developed, with a mini-estate of flats, and the experimental trialling fields much reduced to a small patch over a bridge on the other side of the A14. Jobs have been lost and the orchards have gone.A farm track runs across it and I regularly see runners and cyclists criss-cross it. One solitary farmhouse sits down a track. I haven’t yet met the owners, nor do I know if it will be built around or demolished. What I do know is that this land is to become known as ‘Darwin Green’. This ‘new development’ will have 3,000 mixed-use homes, a primary school, and (allegedly as supermarkets never reveal their plans) a Waitrose.

The land is a wonderful place for dog walking, for just walking, to or through, running or cycling upon. Physically, this piece of land contains many zones and habitats, ranging from a large field that has already had the archaeologists in, which is mandatory in this region. A layer of soil, up to a foot, has been taken off, and there is a thick layer of sand which reminds me of desert time in the Middle East or the Gobi, or the Joshua Tree Park in California, formative desert days for this wanderer. The archaeologists trenches pepper through the sand, all at odd angles to each other, and in strange shapes, some resembling burial chambers and graves, and others that seem to jut out in hexagonal transgressions, following hopeful bits of bone and fragmented something’s into filaments of substrate. Over all this sand and soil wild herbs and flowers have spread, so that one some days a proliferation of purples, yellows, and sage greens spread.

I want to highlight the palate of light and colour available on this land. It is a glorious vista of colours, shades, levels, and textures, ever-changing, most times vibrant, sometimes limpid and decomposing. Here is entropy in action. It feels like circumstance has brought me back to look at my place of childhood, and deal with pressing family matters, and while doing so, has brought me back in touch with my bio-reserve: the clay I’m hewn from.


Very close to this site, is another key site to be developed, currently called NW Cambridge, and is a University-owned piece of land. This is accessed by Huntingdon and Madingley Roads, both key access roads, combining residential and University facilities, including the Cambridge Observatory.

On this site, the University are pouring a lot of money and resources into its design and feel. Already, the University has based it’s artists in residence scheme here, and last years artists, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope, who collaborate under the title ‘Somewhere, Nowhere’, completed their residency with a 6-week public art creation and installation, building a replica in cob of what the development will look like, in miniature. I worked on this project, and loved it: both the sheer physical work of building, the team building that took place with each group of new volunteers each week, and the ingenuity of the idea, which had arisen out of the artists being shown the site by archaeologists, who were finding remains of an iron-age settlement.

The cob buildings will be built over, and there is much speculation over future generations of archaeologists exploring the site, confused at finding 21st Century cob materials!

Talking with Biky Wan, the PR Manager for the NW development, she told me that the artist residency schemes and the creation of public art is very much at the core of the University’s aim with this site: “Our public art policy is very clear: the University strongly believes in using art to nurture a sense of place. The artists appointed have a clear remit to respond to and animate the site, which in turn builds community engagement, as shown by the cob building project”.

I also met with Sam Archer, associate director in the sustainability division at Aecom, a global leader in engineering, design and construction, who have been brought in to design this site to the highest sustainable standards. The plan for this site is a masterpiece in sustainable design: energy, transport and water have been the 3 main focuses for the design, and Sam talked me through some of the innovations planned. These include all the 3,000 homes being plugged into a greywater recycling scheme that directly uses water from the site and collected within catchment ponds (said to be the biggest scheme in the UK), smart-thinking against flood prevention using ‘green fingers’ within each street in each of the several site-wide (and diverse) neighbourhoods, ‘green’ and blue roofs that utilise water and run-off effectively, landscaping that will reduce noise from the M11 and create ‘quiet zones’, integrated transport solutions that promote bike and bus use over private car ownership, and an emphasis on educating the coming community – both business, residential, and University research buildings, in sustainable living within their purpose-built sustainable paradise. 50% of the housing on the site will be for University key workers, which in this case broadly means post-docs, researchers, and those coming on short-term academic contracts. This is different to the mandatory 40% social housing being planned into all the other developments.

This scheme on Huntingdon Road is very striking and innovative in it’s approach, and much of what I heard appealed to the former environmental journalist in me. This site was always in private hands and pretty much ‘hands off’ in terms of its value as a place to walk for leisure. Those involved are proud of the University’s approach to it’s own development, and see it as a real investment – the biggest capital development in it’s 800 year history, one for which it as an institution raised a bond of nearly 1 billion pounds to undertake. It is clearly setting the ‘gold standard’ within all the development sites in and around Cambridge. I hope in terms of the planning and coming construction, some of the thought and obvious care rubs off upon the other sites. The contractors for this site haven’t yet been appointed, but I can imagine this contract is a dream ticket. I’ll be watching this one with interest.


On a blisteringly hot mid july day, I talked with Paul and Doreen Robinson, owners of Waterland Organics, in their kitchen at Willow Farm, Lode, over the A14 and just on the edge of the Cambridge city boundary. I receive one of their weekly vegetable bags, most of it grown on their 60 acre site, and I sometimes help them out doing whatever jobs are needed, pulling up fennel, beetroot, potatoes, cutting courgettes, or sewing seedlings as and when needed. They work closely with Cambridge Cropshare, which brings volunteers to work on the farm in exchange for a shared lunch, vegetables and seedlings, and a sense of community building through agriculture.

I asked Paul about his feelings around Cambridge development, and how it might impact him as the City’s local organic food grower and supplier: “We have 100 people on our books, and 70 active weekly deliveries. We are out much of wednesday and thursday, day and evening. We know not to travel into the city at peak times because traffic is awful and can get backed up off the A14 right to our village. I can see that the cycle of shopping is changing, but as Cambridge grows, that won’t necessarily benefit us, as more people are doing internet shopping, or some of these bigger developments now have supermarkets built in! I feel that these big developments are changing the very nature and the community spirit of Cambridge. The spirit of the place will become eroded: with more flats people become boxed in, and I particularly worry about consumption levels rising, as money flows into the city, but it stays within a small circle, not spreading the wealth across all sections of society.”

Over the course of research, I’ve delved into a city full of issues around it’s growth, and it’s sense of place and it’s purpose. I’ve been hearing about the thorny issues around the city’s small airport, Marshall’s, at it’s eastern edge. Many residents have long wanted and expected the airport to becoming a housing development, including nearby resident, academic and writer, Germaine Greer. Famously in a recent Guardian article, she referred to another of Cambridge’s recent developments, Orchard Park, as “Cambridge’s Beirut”. Julian Huppert refers to the aesthetics of Orchard Park as “awful” and built without much “aesthetic judgement”.

A key area I find much polarity over is water use in Cambridgeshire.

Bob Evans, a soil scientist & fellow of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (there is a second University within Cambridge, but that’s a whole other story), writes: “About 97% of Cambridge’s water is drawn from the finite chalk aquifer south of Cambridge and near Thetford. Using published information of water use and population increase we can estimate the amount of water needed up to 2031. Continuous development of Cambridge therefore isn’t sustainable.”

I’m not much impressed by the response from Daniel Clark, Environmental Manager, at Cambridge Water, who will be responsible for managing consumption over the coming years, written in a public exchange with Bob: “Increased demand for water will put pressure on water availability in what is already one of the driest parts of the South East. Continuing to find the most sustainable solutions, to manage demands and to make the best use of available water is fundamental. Paying for what we use, water efficiency and recycling all play an equal part in managing the supply and demand of water.”

As tourists, students and even a few locals enjoy punting on the river Cam during this balmy summer, this is a big issue we must consider. As I kayak up river every week to Grantchester, and sometimes follow Byron, Rupert Brooke, Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and many other luminaries and mortals in the water too, this issue of conservation and sustainable use presses upon me as I splash about.

I drive around these streets too, and am one of the guilty many contributing to the pollution and gridlock here. I cycle too, and am grateful it was in this cycle-friendly city I first learnt to peddle. A Government grant called ‘Getting Cambridge Moving’ exists to promote cycling and to bring the number of worker-trips to 40%, through education, bike-buying schemes through the workplace, and other incentives. As someone who grew up cycling to school, I lament seeing the number of parents dropping their kids at schools by car.

These are both the macro and the micro points, which crop up minute by minute as I think about the growth of a place – and what it means to me and those I’ve met while thinking about it’s development – and ponder if the loss or changes to land can be sustainable.


Late in the day during my research for this article, I dig out a copy of ‘Cambridge’s Biodiversity – a framework for action’ from 1997. Full of interesting facts (just 2 sites in Cambridgeshire both created by man – the Ouse Washes and the Nene Washes, represent 41.5% of all the SSI area in the county), gathered from all the partners one would expect: English Nature, the Environment Agency, the Wildlife Trust, and the RSPB, as well as 7 Councils bordering upon the county; this report is a detailed call to action to preserve and promote biodiversity. It concludes with ‘targets for action’ (which are working groups in trees and woodlands, Cities, villages and towns, farmland, rivers and wetlands, and dry grasslands), and the reader on the final page is met with (in large bold letters): ‘Your Commitment: Cambridge’s Biodiversity requires your commitment and action’. Although the disappointing instruction in how to achieve this is by contacting the Council.

Quote from report page 12:

‘Cambridgeshire has a surprising diversity of habitats and species but we still have less wildlife per hectare than most counties in the UK. Clearly many habitat types are now reduced to tiny fragments. It is therefore vital that the few surviving areas of semi-natural wildlife habitat are conserved. If we are to ensure a promising future for Cambridgeshire’s biodiversity we must also look for opportunities to expand our wildlife resource through reintroduction of species and expansion of habitats.’

As I’ve walked the land in and around the city, some of which I know well, deep in my bones and DNA and some of which I’ve walked for the first time, I’ve got mixed feelings, naturally. The time for chaining oneself to railings or lying down in front of the diggers is gone. In a place like Cambridge that action would be a day’s story, then replaced by the latest news in scientific research from the University, or an accident or incident elsewhere. I realise I am a stakeholder somehow in all this, and that boils down to whether I stay here, as the city of Cambridge, expanded or otherwise, with it’s rich heritage, will always be within me, whether I’m desert dweller, ex-pat, or nomad, here or not here. Can I become a YIMBY (‘yes in my back yard’)? Am I converted to the need for this city’s expansion? I’m heartened potentially by the prospect of community. I remember something activist Peter Pope said: “We are in transition. A time of change and of opportunity. I hope, a time to build communities of care and compassion.”

How this article was made

  • 730 points
  • 6 backers
  • 17 drafts
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue