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Rail hubs, knowledge districts and place

Neven Sidor of Grimshaw presents at 'Science Cities'

With a national backdrop of debate about HS2, the first panel discussion at our Cambridge 'science cities' forum, tackled the relationship between a successful city economy and modern infrastructure.

Station design expert Neven Sidor of architects and master-planners Grimshaw, explained how the arrival the HS2 rail tracks into the centre of Birmingham presented both a threat and opportunity on how well the city would connect in the future.

The physical thrust of the line would divide the creative quarter in Digbeth from the universities and innovation hub around Aston to the north and east, Neven explained, unless routes and paths through and under the station and tracks could be achieved. He said that a large amount of work had been done with the city council and other stakeholders on agreeing these linking paths.

While the presence of a major high speed station represented a catalyst for economic and social regeneration, he showed the audience how the under-croft areas of the station were to be animated with daylight from above, intelligent landscaping and the insertion of restaurants and retail to ensure that the under-track area did not become a magnet for anti-social behaviour.

The Chief Executive of Bruntwood SciTech's Innovation Birmingham campus, Dr David Hardman, remarked that while the Oxford and Cambridge science clusters faced the challenge of gradually expanding their urban footprints without losing their organic, historic quality and human scale, Birmingham faced the opposite:

'How can the 'engine of the Midlands' re-connect across a sprawl of districts and re-focus its commercial and social energy that once made it world famous? We have already started to discuss how the creative quarter in Digbeth can link across Curzon Street Station with the digital and ICT entrepreneurs around Aston and upwards of 40,000 students.'

LDA Design Director Bernie Foulkes expanded on the importance of planning-in streets and spaces that not only connect city districts but create 'sticky places' where people meet naturally and exchange ideas, often between buildings:

'When we did the master-plan for reviving Birmingham's East Side - which is close to the HS2 Curzon site - we did not do a bad plan but when you walk it now you discover that quite a number of the streets we designed in have been built over and the connections lost. Add to that the fact that some of the large blocks have only one entrance and three 'blind' sides means that flow around the district has been limited, which was never our intention.'

Vice Chair of Cambridge Ahead Matthew Bullock insisted that a major issue for the over-heating economies of Cambridge and Oxford is a 'silting-up of transport infrastructure'. He described how the economic forecasting principles used by the Office for Budget Responsibility - that new infrastructure will always attract growth for cities at the expense of other places - do not apply to Oxford and Cambridge. He said:

'These grew from the inside out, with growth bubbling up through the floorboards. The agglomeration of tech companies wanting to bind together causes a choking of transport and housing services - and pollution. Unless we keep the City of Cambridge expanding without losing the elasticity that attracts innovation and talented people we will fail.'

With only two local authorities Cambridge was viewed by the Oxford Science Park's board director and Magdalen College senior bursar Rory Maw as making a better fist of collaboration on providing new housing and upgrading transport than Oxford - with six local authorities:

'I can drive from Magdalen College to the science park in 12 minutes but we are looking at re-opening the Cowley branch line - shut to passengers since the 1960s - with a new station to serve the businesses on the park. Network Rail has only just completed its first study but it is frustrating that Chiltern Railways looked the pros and cons five years ago, finding that the required investment was surpisingly cheap.'

'We have now over 50 life sciences companies on the Science Park but we don't have the equivalent of an Astra Zeneca in Oxford yet. The ecosystem for life sciences and technology companies is hugely improved though since the 1980s though a major challenge is space and the commute to work times are increasing as house prices climb.'

There is help, however, on the infrastructure horizon in the shape of the East West Railway Company set up the government to make sure there is a direct rail connection between Oxford and Cambridge with commuter connectivity that allows the cities to grow. Strategy Director, Will Gallagher, joined the panel discussion:

'Cambridge is unrecognisable to the city of 20 years ago. What is at stake is the global competitive advantage that the UK has with two cities with over-heating economies. We could begin to solve some of the issues that are causing the Oxford and Cambridge economies to overheat. We have put more stations in our plan at the expense of faster journey times to allow more people to live and work in these city regions.'

Neven Sidor commented that the connected future cities on the CaMkOx Arc might resemble the Randstad megalopolis in Holland where the largest Dutch cities of Utrecht, Rotterdam, the Hague and Amsterdam are grouped in a chain around the airport of Schipol.

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