Conceptual Master Plan consultation: perspectives from the fields: #1

Since the last CFPS Blog, when our fields were at the height of their midsummer splendour, with uncut grass, buzzing insects, and trees and hedgerows brimming with natural life and energy, things have moved on.  As we now move away from summer, the trees are just beginning to feel autumnal, and the atmosphere has gradually adopted a lower key.

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Meanwhile, a very different feel characterises the time horizons of policy and planning at the level of the University institutions and the world they inhabit. Things are slowly hotting up! The deadline for consultation over the “Conceptual Master Plan” proposed earlier in the summer (see previous Blogs) –  announced belatedly towards the end of august –  has now passed. And we are  entering a period during which the University authorities will need to decide how to respond to the feedback they have received. How will they learn from this evidence and argument? Which of the  “concepts” will they retain, and which will they jettison in the light of this information? This is, of course, just the latest round of feedback concerning the views of the local and University communities concerning the future of the fields in particular: both communities have, repeatedly  over the past five years, made clear that they are committed to the retention of this land as unspoilt shared green space,  a “green gap” or “green lung” for the enjoyment and appreciation of all. Crucially, this is also a  commitment recognised by  elected local representatives , at Canterbury City Council, in the draft District Plan.

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The current Master Plan process, however, looks at the campus as a whole. It is interesting to see that this agenda  has already provided momentum for the formation of a new, Blean-based group, seeking to situate both the University of Kent’s Canterbury master plan and that of Canterbury Christ Church in a broader political context, both locally and nationally. Readers of this Blog are encouraged to visit their “University Challenged” site, reflect on its implications and relevance to them, and potentially contribute to the debate as it takes shape there. It should be underlined that what is in focus here is the entirely of the University’s Canterbury land holdings, extending hundreds of acres far to the North (beyond Park Wood, sports pitches, and Brotherhood Wood ) and over to the East (fields and woods beyond St Stephen’s hill/Canterbury Hill). This is way beyond  the familiar blue-sign demarcated area (which the casual observer might reasonably assume constituted the relevant area.) This follows from the University authorities’ decision to quietly but systematically acquire vast swathes of  agricultural land in recent years.

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So, a new climate of questioning and challenge may be emerging. This must be a healthy , and indeed rather overdue development. Powerful institutions of all types, whether Universities, corporations or national media conglomerates will, after all, tend to resist learning from their mistakes, become self-referential and pursue narrow institutional interests, unless exposed to critical scrutiny and held to account for their plans and actions. Commentary and critique emerging  from affected local people  can and should be integral to that  process, alongside the role of the local media, and in our case, Canterbury’s extraordinary concentration of associations, charities and NGOs with relevant expertise (for example, the specialist knowledge of the Canterbury Society, and the front line everyday experience of  myriad community and environmental groups – see CFPS Blogroll examples).

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Against this backdrop, this Blog  – and further Blogs which will soon follow – will give a flavour of just a segment of the feedback submitted to the University’s Corporate Communications department  over the past couple of months. It will present comments from some respondents from  the local / University communities who are committed to the retention of the fields as unspoilt shared green space. Of course, such respondents also hold  views about other aspects of the Conceptual Master Plan too. The contributions will be presented here uncut, exactly as they were directly expressed to the University authorities, so covering feedback on the entire Conceptual Master Plan. Material relating directly to the fields, however, will be highlighted in bold for ease of navigation.

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In terms of the overall picture that will emerge in the weeks ahead, it is worth noting that attempts are currently being made by residents associations working with the University authorities  to ensure that the  the aggregate results of the exercise, when collated, can be shared, and presented in a fair and balanced way. Let us hope that the University authorities agree to communicate openly, transparently and in a spirit of real collaboration.  In the meantime, the perspectives offered in this series of Blogs may give a preliminary sense of the flavour of some of the issues which will be at stake.

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Rather than the usual seasonal, close-to-real time photos, the images from the fields interspersed with this text for these Blogs will be thematic, drawing together material gathered over the past 5 or so years by the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society.  As you may have already noticed, the joy of tree climbing is the theme for this Blog, but the ones to follow will focus on other aspects of life on the unspoilt fields. All will be revealed!

best wishes

Chaucer Fielder

Beginning of Feedback Example #1

The Conceptual Master Plan contains some sensible and welcome ideas, especially  where the University’s willingness to follow the consultant’s recommended design principles is manifested in the ideational proposals: so, concentrating development in the centre of campus, enhancing a sense of place through better signage and structure, recognising the green asset value of the campus, and protecting the views from campus of the Cathedral and cityscape are all sound ideas. However, there are six major problems too.

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First, central campus’s potential to better meet conferencing needs is not considered, but it is arbitrarily assumed that ‘parklands’ is an appropriate site. This undermines the whole logic of the conceptual plan (see sixth point below). Second, the proposals in relation to the Crab & Winkle seem to exhibit a lack of understanding of the landscape, and are apparently disconnected from the reality of how this route is used in practice, and how it is valued and enjoyed in everyday use (without the need for costly hands on ‘development’) in its current form.

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Third, the fuzzy representations of building possibilities on some parts of campus implies the loss of significant swathes of woodland, and alarmingly when presenting the proposals the consultants admitted in this context that they were not sufficiently familiar with the campus to be aware of these consequences (University officials remained silent on this point). Fourth, there is bizarrely little consideration of the situation regarding already-developed Park Wood, where there is scope for heightened meeting of accommodation need (hence relieving pressure on other sites) by efficient replacement of existing delapidated and poorly designed stock.

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Fifth, the plans are weak on the issue of parking. The opportunity for imaginative thinking here, including underground options for parking zones, is left unrealised. (To anticipate the routine response that the costs of this are prohibitive: why is this a standard option for meeting parking needs in many other situations where space pressure is intense? Also note that underground parking goes with the logic of the plan in relation to consolidation of a quasi-urban core).

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Sixth, the plan’s contemplation of the idea of situating development (a “conferencing hotel” and two other structures) on chaucer fields and the southern slopes (now relabelled as part of “Parklands”) is a disastrous misjudgement. There are several reasons for this. It undermines the integrity of the conceptual plan, because it demonstrably violates that plan’s own design principles in relation to strategic views, spatial concentration of development, and green asset recognition and protection  – priorities that give the plan coherence. It therefore makes the exercise look cynical, ad hoc and inconsistent – fundamental historical problems which the whole notion of the Master Plan was meant to address. Furthermore, the “Parklands” element directly contradicts the priorities and values of the local (geographical) community, the University community, and expert opinion made known to the University authorities on several occasions over the past 5 years across a range of consultative, legal and planning arenas. In addition, it also contradicts the democratically mandated designation of this space as a green gap in the draft District Plan – a designation which has made clear that preservation of this place as unspoilt shared green space is a priority not just for immediate residents and the university community, but for the District as a whole.

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It must be concluded that to carry this element of the proposals forward into the substantive Master Plan would be inconsistent with the basic function of that Plan; spectacularly undermine any claims University authorities might wish to make as to their good stewardship of one of the most attractive of English university campuses; and damage profoundly the University authorities’ relationship with each of the aforementioned geographical, workplace and expert communities.

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End of Feedback Example #1

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