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Protecting landscapes and the importance of place in 'Science Cities'

Panel on historic landscapes and place (from left): Alice Midmer of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, Tony Calladine of Historic England, Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum, Simon Payne of Lamsbsquay Consulting and Nicola Longland of LDA Design

Can Historic England protect the medieval heritage of Cambridge and its historic landscapes in the face of new housing and infrastructure development?

An interesting panel discussion took place at our Cambridge 'Science Cities' event asking questions around how do the preservation of historic landscapes and communities add to our future wellbeing and protection against climate change, how can the planning system evolve to create a joined-up approach to housing and place and how can designers bring in the heritage of the surrounding landscape in East Anglia, to improve the quality of streets in the city?

Historic England, the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, Lambsquay Consulting and LDA Design took part in our panel discussion.

Increasingly the historic environment is researched and managed not only at the level of the historic buildings, sites or monuments, writes Historic England, but also in terms of entire landscapes.

It states that this 'includes extensive tracts of countryside as well as entire townscapes. Some of these areas are designated, such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas, while others are everyday and degraded landscapes whose historic character may be less easily legible. Historic England's landscape-scale work allows us to develop our understanding of the historic environment and its relationship with people today on a broader scale. It helps us engage most effectively with large-scale management of land such as farming and forestry. In doing so, Historic England supports the implementation of the European Landscape Convention (The Florence Convention).

With our forum discussions around the building of new housing settlements and infrastructure associated with the developing the OxCam Arc, Future Cities Forum invited Tony Callandine, Regional Director for the East of England at Historic England to discuss the threat to historic landscapes around Cambridge and further into the Fens.

He explained that although there has been some interest in the authorities discussing the importance of protecting historic landscapes, there is a greater depth of understanding to be reached:

'There is so much to discuss about the development of the Arc and what it means. I think the original target was for one million homes across it and that is a massive smack in face for all those historic settlements. Plus there was the ambition for an express way and also East West Rail. It is a significant ambition which has apparently been reined back somewhat but there is still a conversation to be had about any future impact. There has been plenty of discussion about the impact on the natural environment but not so much about the historic aspect.

'At Historic England, we want a proper assessment for the Arc. There is a lot of buried archaeology around Cambridge and elsewhere and just because a field looks empty, it doesn't mean there is nothing there. There are significant bits of historic environment around Cambridge and what do the plans mean for medieval Cambridge with how the city is extending. People don't go to Cambridge to live or study for the skiing, they choose it for its historic offer.

'Discussion of protecting the historic environment is often seen as a block and some people want to just sweep it out the way, but working with the historic environment is a positive way forward. It is part of health and wellbeing and developers should see historic places as a selling point. People want to live in historic environments and care needs to be taken around how they abut new settlements as we do want new settlements to be successful.'

The Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FF&CC), which was also present at our forum discussions in Cambridge, says that it wants to push forward a change at systems level for how landscape is protected and developed. The FFCC aims to bring together a range of voices from farmers to activists, businesses to government, academics to practitioners to encourage debate and catalyse change. In particular, it is concerned with levelling the playing field for a fair food system, a transition plan for agroecology by 2030 and a sustainable land use and nature restoration, with flourishing rural economies and thriving communities where people can afford to live and work.

Co-ordinator of the East of England inquiry at the FF&CC, Alice Midmer said:

'We are trying to develop a land use framework with pilots taking place in Devon and Cambridgeshire. There are many challenges to how the landscape is being developed with so many demands for housing currently. We also talk to farmers and there are challenges with agriculture and a lack of biodiversity. Water is a pressing issue as well with both a lack of it and flooding at the same time. We are not telling people what to do but trying to come up with some principles so that better choices can be made. We are gathering data and listening to people's' views.

'The best outcome is if we can come up with some clever holistic ways of land sharing, producing places where people want to live and highlighting the environment at the same time. It is important to look at 15-minute communities where people want to live and work locally and produce landscapes that people care about.'

Lambsquay Consulting of Cambridge Limited is an international spatial planning consultancy, set up by the Former Director of Environment at Cambridge City Council, Simon Payne. He has been working with Uttlesford District Council in Essex, which has recently been awarded the Royal Town Planning Institute Regional Award for Excellence in Planning. Simon has been advising the council on setting up the Customer Stakeholder Forum. His work in Germany has led to receiving an award for services to the Heidelberg Club International (HCI) from Professor Dr Wurzner, Mayor of Heidelberg. The HCI is an association dedicated to collaboration between world cities that share values with Heidelberg in relation to economic success and environmental sustainability.

Simon spoke at Future Cities Forum about the problems with the planning system in England preventing, in his view, an appropriate joining up of housing development and infrastructure and the development of high quality place:

'I have been working in planning since 1974 and started my career in Birmingham where in those days any growth would be a good thing, Now it is all about engagement with people and place. I think we need a conversation about protectionism as people don't want change very much and also about the gummed up nature of the planning process. The Planning Bill is not coming forward and we need to discuss how we can join everything up with biodiversity, and talk about the ecosystem in its own right.

'We are living in an enormously exciting time with change everywhere from Brexit to climate concerns but we do need a different approach now so that we can have a proper debate about the Arc and more certainty around policy - we need to step up to the current challenges. The ideals of Ebenezer Howard around designing garden towns and villages hold true today because he was trying to create healthy places with clean air and water, but our systems are under pressure, so we must remember to embrace his concepts wholeheartedly.'

We were grateful to LDA-Design for contributing to the discussions on the inspired idea of using the heritage of landscape in the Eastern Region of the UK to suggest plans for healthier streetscapes. Nicola Longland, Associate at LDA Design and a member of the Cambridge Design Review Panel described how we also need to use nature to tackle social issues in our communities post pandemic:

'LDA-Design wants to make the world a better place and recently we have been challenged by Oxford City Council to look at the city post pandemic and make it a more friendly environment. So using recycled materials out of palettes for transporting vaccines, we created some planters in Broad Street to improve the look of the area and provide places where people can sit and chat, get to know new people even because we have a bit problem with loneliness in our cities and we know that spending time around greenery reduces our stress levels, improves footfall and has a big human impact. Broad Street is the tip of the iceberg of social issues that we got to test and ask what it does and ask questions of the community and businesses. Now the council is assessing the benefits to use elsewhere.

'In Cambridge we are working how how streets can be improved because they can be polluted, unhealthy places and often soul less. We want to make Cambridge an exemplar for healthy living to the world and so we are thinking about how we can use the heritage of the fenlands and bring that character through the city streets. We think people want to live in places where the heritage of the natural world around them is reflected.

'In trying to increase biodiversity, we think edible landscapes are a great idea where you can grow your own food but if you talk for instance to a highways engineer they are less keen for potential safety reasons. We need a broader expectation for what we are trying to achieve in our landscaping and battling climate change so we need to start designing places in a different way. This includes looking at agriculture and where our economy comes from, the sort of skills needed for modern farms and how we can make livelihoods out of the landscape again.'

Future Cities Forum will be returning to Cambridge for more discussions on planning and the environment shortly.


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