Conceptual Master Plan consultation: perspectives from the fields: #4

This is the fourth of a mini-series of CFPS Blogs reporting on Feedback to the CMP consultation. It is a Guest Blog presenting, unedited, the 4th response from a well positioned member of the local/University community, as submitted to the University’s Corporate Communications Department (CCD, which is organising the CMP consultation process). The idea is to give a preliminary flavour of some of the views held by informed and experienced observers, ahead of the release of any summary report which the CCD may choose to provide. While local residents’ associations and others are pressing for the process to be as transparent and communicative as possible, unfortunately the University authorities’ approach to presenting results, and showing how the plans will be modified to reflect what has been learned,  are unknown at the time of writing.  In the meantime, the series of  Blogs hopes to give a sense of some of the emerging issues in general, and  as part of that broader picture, in relation to Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes (re-labelled as part of “Parklands” in the CMP).

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The feedback below has been put forward by Richard Norman, formally a professor of moral philosophy, and a very longstanding member of  the local community too. References to Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes are presented in Bold font for ease of reference.  Although quite long, please do take the trouble to read it, as it is extremely thoughtful, full of interesting observations and bursting with intriguing suggestions! The interprersed images relate to birdlife witnessed on the fields over recent years.

Beginning of Professor Norman’s Feedback

First, I greatly welcome the initiative to begin a conversation between the University and its neighbours about the future of the campus and the University’s estate.  The recognition of the need to “ensure we deliver long-term benefits for our local communities, and improve our intellectual, physical, economic and cultural connections with the city of Canterbury”, is the right starting-point for an on-going dialogue, and I hope very much to see that dialogue continue.  I attended a presentation to local residents’ associations, and the spirit in which that meeting was conducted, both amicable and honest, augurs well for a new relationship between the University and local residents. I also welcome the overall approach of the Master plan – an attempt to develop the estate as a coherent pattern of spaces and buildings, rather than simply a collection of buildings sited in whatever locations happened to be available at the time.

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The rough division of the estate into three main components – the built heart of the campus, the southern parkland, and the northern landholdings – is a useful starting-point for thinking about the plan.  I think it leaves out some important features, and I’ll come back to this, but I’d like first to offer some comments on those three components.

The campus heart

I strongly concur with the core idea of creating two new entrance squares and a connecting boulevard.  The availability of the land which was formerly the day nursery next to Keynes, the eminently disposable nature of the Tanglewood buildings, and the beginnings of a space beside the School of Arts building, provide the scope for a West Square as a new ‘front door’ to the University.  Most visitors to the University come via St Thomas’s Hill, and the drive up the University Road with its unfolding vista of the city and the Stour valley is a huge asset but at present leads to a terrible anti-climax.  Instead it needs to arrive at an impressive new ‘gateway’, which in turn should be, as envisaged, the fulcrum of a pedestrian boulevard running westwards to Keynes and Turing colleges, and eastwards past the central buildings to the Registry and Darwin.  Grouped around and along this, the central buildings and spaces could acquire a much-improved coherent overall shape and character.

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I would therefore support the suggestion that the “new gateway squares in the campus heart” would be the ideal “opportunity for early wins” (p.117).  The exact nature and location of the East Square would need to be thought through.  If it were to be located where it is proposed on the map, this would require the demolition of the existing main building of Darwin College in the near future.  There is a case for that, but there are other possibilities.  Rather than create a new entrance from St Stephen’s Hill, it might be easier to retain the existing entrance from Giles Lane and Darwin Road,  creating a new square which would incorporate the existing entrance to the Registry and the existing Visitor Reception.

 

The Southern “Parkland”

 This is of course the part of the estate of most immediate concern to neighbouring residents, and as such it offers the opportunity to move on from recent history.  The reiterated emphasis on retaining this area as parkland, and the recognition that the green setting is the University’s greatest asset, is greatly to be welcomed.  In this context it has to be said that the map showing a ‘conferencing hotel as a pavilion in the park’, located on the southern slopes, is needlessly provocative.  I appreciate that this is at present simply a ‘concept’ and that there are no immediate plans to proceed with such a development.  All the more reason, then, to leave it off the map.  I hope it will be recognised that the idea of building a conference centre on the southern slopes has come to epitomise an antagonistic relationship between the University and local residents.  If the new commitment to dialogue and cooperation is genuine – and I believe that it is – then by far the best way to foster that new relationship would be to drop talk of a conference centre in the fields.

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If there is still felt to be a need for a conference centre which could also cater to the need for short courses for a particular category of students, then I would suggest that the ideal place for it in the Parklands would be next to Beverley Farm.  The Design Principles on p.51 include a commitment to “reveal the historic narrative of the campus linking together its past, present and future”, and on p.94 it is noted that “very often the existing Parklands buildings are some of the most historic of all the campus buildings, such as Beverley Farmhouse…”.  It is an under-utilised asset.  There is great potential for linking it to a new conference centre on the northern side of University Road, imaginatively designed to blend in with the architecture of the historic farm building.

Another historical asset which was mentioned is the old Crab and Winkle railway line.  I am sceptical about this, not least because most of the line on the University estate is inaccessible in the tunnel.  There may be possibilities north of the tunnel, but the suggestions for using the railway embankment south of the tunnel are impractical (see below).  Better, I suggest, would be to enhance the Eliot footpath as the existing north-south axis.  The large pit to the right surrounded by trees at the start of the path, and the land immediately behind it, could be landscaped and improved.  The idea of an open air theatre in the so-called ‘bomb crater’ also has potential, though it would need to be a temporary facility as the pit becomes badly flooded in winter.

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There were, at the presentation, frequent references to ‘enhancing’ the parkland.  This would be good – but despite the allusions to Stowe and Capability Brown, building a conference centre is not the way to do it!  There are other and better ways.  There are references to “new green landscapes” which “might include… avenues of trees and fruit blossom” (p.56), and orchards are mentioned on p.61.  At the presentation one local resident suggested restoring the orchard in the south-east field on the southern slopes.  This, I think, is a great idea, and another example of the scope for drawing on the history of the area.  There are one or two old fruit trees still in that field, but mostly it has been replanted with other trees.  The oaks are flourishing but the horse chestnuts are in poor shape, badly affected by bleeding canker.  They could be removed and replaced by fruit trees in the central area of the field.  Recreating a traditional Kentish orchard, and designating it as a community orchard, would be an ideal way of forging the right sort of link with the local community, at the same time revealing the historical narrative of the campus.  Other enhancements could also be considered, such as some selective tree-planting (provided it doesn’t obstruct the view), and the improvement of the woodland at the top of the western field.  The important principle is that it should be enhanced as semi-natural parkland, not turned into something else.

 Wildflower meadows are proposed on pp.56 and 61, and these too would be an attractive enhancement of the parklands.  The field immediately below University Road on the southern slopes would make a wonderful wildflower meadow, further enhancing the already magnificent panorama.  Alternatively, wildflower borders on either side of University Road, from Beverly Farm to the West Gateway Square, would be a perfect approach to the new ‘front door’.  If projects such as an orchard and a wildflower meadow on the southern slopes were to be pursued, I believe that members of the local community would welcome an opportunity to be actively involved in promoting and achieving them.

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The Northern land holdings

I don’t have a great deal to say about these, but the basic idea of retaining the rural character of this part of the estate, and creating some judicially landscaped ‘rural business clusters’, sounds sensible.  Much will depend, however, on discussions with, and feedback from, Blean and Tyler Hill residents.

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Parkwood student accommodation

The Parkwood student accommdation doesn’t seem to fit into any of the three areas of the estate.  It is not part either of the central heart or the northern land holdings, and it needs to be considered in its own right.  Analogously to the central heart, it should be envisaged and developed as a student village with its own coherent village pattern, perhaps with an improved frontage looking onto the road and the sports fields.  Thought should also be given to the utilisation of Park Wood itself, the surviving woodland between the existing Parkwood accommodation and the Business School.  Additional student accommodation could be provided here in an attractive setting, consonant with the idea of a Garden Campus.

Car parks

It is suggested on p.57 that the car parks should be pushed to the edges of the estate instead of cluttering up the campus heart.  This point was briefly raised at the presentation, but after that it was scarcely mentioned.  I doubt whether that aim is achievable.  The brief reference to tunnelling into the hillside was implausible.  A better approach might be to accept that some at least of the existing car parks will remain in their present locations, and to look for ways of integrating them into the campus more successfully.  A possible approach might be to build on top of them, and hide them behind attractive frontages.  The aspiration to ‘tame’ the roads and make the campus more pedestrian-friendly is commendable, but it can be achieved in other ways.  The excellent bus services to the campus, especially to the bus stop and turning point near Keynes College, are a great success, and something to build on.  The fact is that University Road is and will continue to be the main vehicle access route to the campus, and it is best to plan around that.  If there is to be any new car parking it could perhaps be north of University Road near Turing College, keeping more cars out of the Campus Heart.

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Crab & Winkle Way and railway line

There are various references to making use of the Crab & Winkle cycle route between Canterbury and Whitstable which runs through the campus, and of the route of the old Crab & Winkle railway line.  These references are somewhat confusing and, in some respects, not properly thought through. It is suggested that the Crab & Winkle Way cycle path on the north side of the campus could be upgraded and widened from a pedestrian and cycle route to provide a route for vehicles from Tyler Hill Road (p.97).  This would be a bad idea.  It would blight the attractive route down the hill from Blean Church. There also appears to be a reference (though this is unclear) to making the disused railway line north of the tunnel into a new route between the central campus and Tyler Hill Road.  This certainly has potential.  The old track is extremely muddy and overgrown, and could be turned into a fine pedestrian and cycle route, but again making it a vehicle route would destroy the rural character of this land. There are also rather confusing references to the walking and cycling route between Canterbury and the University:

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Although it is a great asset, the Crab and Winkle Way follows a slightly circuitous route through existing residential streets which some residents find noisy and disruptive, especially when used by students late at night. The route utilises dimly lit alleyways and a tunnel which are not overlooked and which are intimidating after dark. In addition, the shared route is often quite narrow, and fast moving cyclists (downhill at least) are often a hazard to pedestrians.  (p.99)

I presume that this means the route along St Stephen’s Pathway, Hackington Place, Hackington Terrace, St Michael’s Road, and the Eliot pathway.  The recognition of the problem of night-time noise and disruption is welcome, but I am afraid that the suggested alternative, of acquiring the old railway embankment and turning it into a ‘tree-lined boulevard’ for a public transport system linking the campus to the north side of Canterbury West station, is a non-starter.  It would involve demolishing several houses in Beaconsfield Road and most of Hanover Place, and would in any case merely transfer the night-time noise from the front to the back of local houses.  Better to make the most of the existing pedestrian and cycle route, and tackle the problem of night-time noise in other ways which are already being explored.

Conclusion

I welcome the general approach of the Master Plan, the Design Principles on p.51, and the aspiration to create ‘the best garden campus in the UK’.  I hope that the further refinement of the Master Plan will fully take on board the feedback from the local community and will seek to enlist and harness the support of local people.

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End of Professor Norman’ Feedback