LDA Design Director, Charles Crawford, argues that landscape needs to be at the heart of plans for the UK’s Growth Corridor.
The UK Government believes that the ‘corridor’ from Cambridge through to Milton Keynes and onto Oxford can help drive Britain’s post-Brexit economy. Rich in tech and knowledge-based industries, the area is already booming.
LDA Design’s recent report ‘Growth Corridor Economic Vision 2050’ describes the way the region pulls in global talent and investment. Benchmarking research (MIT Skoltech Initiative (2013) Technology Innovation Ecosystem Benchmarking Study) identifies how the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are fuelling two of the world’s five most successful technology innovation ecosystems. In addition, Milton Keynes and surrounding towns are home to pioneering, high-performance technology and motorsport, aerospace and digital creative clusters.
Plans to improve strategic east-west rail and road links provide further opportunity for growth, helping to support the Government’s aspiration to increase the Corridor’s economy by up to 700,000 new jobs by 2050. This demands new housing and infrastructure – up to one million new homes by 2050.
Success relates very strongly to the quality of the built and natural environment. Life here is close to nature, it is why the area has proven so attractive. To continue to compete globally, and to attract the very best minds, the region needs to provide sociable and sustainable places to live and work.
However, faced with this scale of growth, a successful future for the corridor is far from a given. Unless landscape lies at the heart of spatial development, the very assets for which the area is known, such as the Cotswolds, Chilterns and a myriad historic towns and cities, could be undermined.
Making great places is critical
Delivery will require strong partnerships between the Government and Local Enterprise Partnerships and good cross-boundary spatial planning by local authorities, working with statutory partners and the private sector to identify the location of new communities and transport linkages. A deep understanding of landscape is also needed to ensure that development reflects the context, and the natural and built environment is protected.
Placemaking has to be at the heart of these plans. Development has to be where people and businesses want to locate. This means a distinctive sense of place and the promise of a high quality of life, and contact with nature. All this helps to foster a community spirit and sense of belonging.
New development, perhaps more so along the corridor than anywhere else, will need to be future proofed against environmental and societal change. Indeed, if the area is to continue to attract the brightest talent it will need to provide for highly sustainable lifestyles, including green modes of travel and flexible working patterns.
Brexit or No Brexit, people have a choice as to where they choose to put down roots.
The strongest risk comes from poor design that delivers generic places. If master-planning of new communities in the Growth Corridor is to succeed in its social purpose, it needs to harness the power of the landscape as the foundation of place-making.
The principle of ‘first life, then spaces, then buildings’ needs to lie at the core of development in the region. In order to create well-layered and thriving places, we must start with people and how they live, next work on the spaces that support this, and only then sort out the buildings.
A landscape-led approach to masterplanning creates specific kinds of value – harnessing context, elevating respectable architecture, and yielding higher commercial returns. It creates welcoming civic spaces that are designed to work for a diverse society. Functional green infrastructure helps to minimise flood risk and sensitive landscape treatment supports biodiversity and wildlife habitats.
The truth is that all too often the opportunities for a landscape-led approach to place are ignored by masterplans focussed on hitting housing targets. Or they are lost through attrition, with planning battles and arguments over viability. Where there is no champion for the vision of a place, the casualties are design, the environment and quality of life. Across the country, this has unfortunately become all too familiar, as lamented in the recent Independent Review of Build Out conducted by Sir Oliver Letwin.
So, we do face the strong risk that even this much-lauded corridor could fail to deliver on its potential. Everything possible needs to be done to make sure that all new development creates a great place.
What is needed is a holistic look at the process for locating and designing strategic sites along the corridor. Guarantors could include Development Corporations, which have proved their worth in the past. They succeed because they give back to planning authorities some real control over the process and the quality of the places created. In addition, Government will need to play its part, supporting planning and delivery with a significant proportion of the upfront set-up and running costs.
The return on this kind of investment would be impressive. It would create a well-connected network of new communities that act as a magnet for a highly skilled workforce and global investors. Exactly what we will need no matter what the future holds.
To download the Growth Corridor Economic Vision 2050 report, visit www.lda-design.co.uk.