February Phillips explains how Cambridge architects are helping hone their city’s local plan
The government’s approach to controlling change in the built environment emphasises ‘planning from the bottom up’ and ‘cutting red tape’. So when Cambridge City Council launched its consultation documents on the Cambridge Local Plan it seemed like an opportune moment for the local chapter of the RIBA, Cambridge Association of Architects (CAA), an active and collaborative group of architects from different practices in the city, to get involved.
The 365 page initial consultation document, Issues and Options Report 1, was split into 12 chapters, prompting answers to questions such as: ‘What do you think sustainable development means for Cambridge?’. Its illustrations were plans of the city with locating stars (a symbol which features in a plethora of planning consultation documents). Slightly daunted by the impenetrable nature of the information, the CAA divided the chapters between members, met the City Council for discussion and submitted a written response. The comments were collated by Cambridge City Council, alongside around 11,000 others.
Having responded to the consultation documents, the spring 2013 issue of Cambridge Architecture – a biannual magazine produced by CAA volunteers, funded by corporate sponsorship/advertising and distributed free – focused on the changing local plan for the city. The opening pages of the magazine included a letter from the CAA to the council, listing three key challenges that it believed the plan should address. These were; producing a coherent city-wide spatial plan, promoting the use of under (or poorly) developed sites within the city and encouraging development of areas for living and working (not just science parks and housing estates). The letter presented simple and clear priorities for future development, seen as important by architects and urban designers based in the city. Also included were ‘interviews’ with local professionals, including a planner, development consultant, lobbyist and politician – answering consultation style questions such as: ‘How could the planning process be improved to give better control over the quality of large-scale developments?’
The magazine’s aim was to encourage people to get involved in the planning process and promote support for the key challenges identified by the CAA. However, it also exposed the varying opinions of professionals in the city about the level of control needed to change in the built environment – and this theme became the focus of discussions at the magazine’s launch event in March 2013.
The public event opened with an activity based on a carpeted map of Cambridge. Guests were asked to place helium filled balloons (maybe they should have been stars) on the map – pink in places they loved and green in places they wanted to see most change. The map, as a large object in the room, focused attention and placing the balloons provided a conversation starting activity to promote exchange.
Five guest speakers gave quick fire presentations, each with an underlying message about an approach to change in Cambridge; from cutting red tape in order to speed up much-needed development; through production of an intelligent framework, responding closely to the existing context and allowing the integration of community driven and large scale developments; to careful protection and conservation of the parts of the city seen as most important. One speaker, the head of environment for the City Council, was left holding the baby – offering reassurance that detailed guidance would be developed as part of the local plan , through consultation and collaboration with all.
Don’t let up
Deciding on the CAA’s three clear aims for the local plan was a walk in the park, compared the task the City Council has been set. It has to develop a local plan which sets an appropriate level of control for change in the city, while cutting the red tape, promoting planning from the bottom up and trying to ensure that what’s left in the middle isn’t just a big mess. The CAA will continue to collaborate with the council, responding to consultation documents and sitting on design review panels, in the hope that our voluntary involvement will influence positive change. In this much-loved city, with engaged professionals and citizens, the success or otherwise of the future local plan will be an important test case for recent planning reform.
February Phillips is an associate at 5th Studio, was on the editorial board for Cambridge Architecture issues 64 and 65 and is chair of the Cambridge Association of Architects.
Cambridge Architecture is available to download from http://www.architecture.com