Thursday July 04 2024.

5 minute read

University cities: microcosms of our nation, petri dishes for solutions.

Durham’s magnificent cathedral was once described by Bill Bryson as “essentially just a giant pile of rubble” which over time has “settled into a position of impeccable horizontality, which it has maintained ever since.”

The author and former chancellor of Durham University intended this as praise for the foresight of its creators – but to me as I stepped off the train in the city, it had echoes of the UK at large. Our country and the development sector can be at its worst, fragmented, with inconsistent aims and objectives, yet with the proper vision, coordination and planning – has the potential to achieve wonders.

I visited three historic university cities in the past weeks – Durham, Oxford and Cambridge – for a mixture of work and leisure. All of them struck me as representing a microcosm of the UK’s wider societal and urban challenges. These cities – world-renowned seats of learning and history, centres of innovation, full of art, architecture and culture – are also deeply unequal places, with visible and invisible walls and dividers segmenting society. Privilege and poverty are streets apart. Many residents do not feel the benefits of the growth and wealth the cities are generating and this has understandably led to a push back against a perceived ‘growth agenda’.

This isn’t news to these cities. Proactive efforts are ongoing to break down barriers, cultivate inclusivity, and tackle historic inequality. Much of my time spent in Cambridge and Oxford in particular over the past four years has been spent working closely with those who want to create more inclusive, sustainable, socially conscious urban design. Where better to learn how to fix the problems the UK faces than in the places that suffer them most acutely?

At the Oxford Property Summit earlier this year, leaders were brimming with ideas about how to achieve greater growth and equality in lockstep. Property has a fundamental role to play in solving societal problems. Every project, and especially those being brought forward in areas of acute inequality, needs to carefully consider where it can have the most positive impact. It’s not about stopping growth – but harnessing it to deliver the outcomes we want.

Early stage involvement with partners and coordination beyond parish or local authority borders is key. We need to look at the bigger picture. Does the area need a new park? What’s the real local living wage? Which local schools need better facilities? Is there enough capacity at community centres? The more we come together to talk, plan and discuss, the more we can ensure that we’re putting investment where it will be best felt.

Oxford has recently launched an Inclusive Economy Charter to challenge businesses to improve their social value impact in the city. The council has been proactive and positive in engaging with developers to assess what contribution they can make.

For example signing up to a pledge to provide the Oxford Living Wage for anyone working at the site, the first instance of which will be Mission Street’s Fabrica laboratory. Cambridge has delivered mini modular homes for the homeless to help them get back on their feet, and the city’s co-housing development at Marmalade Lane, owned as a cooperative by its residents in trust, pioneers a new way of living and thriving together.

Durham has also introduced a ‘County Durham Pound’ project, bringing together £1bn in public and private sector investment in social value into a coordinated initiative to maximise its impact on the community.

If it can work start to work in these cities. Why not across the country? We can’t have development that is disconnected and uncoordinated. If we want all our development to fit together over time into something as impactful and enduring as Durham Cathedral – then we’re going to need to think bigger and plan better.

Jul 19, 2024

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