Comparing Oxford, Cambridge, and Brighton’s post war development planning in the motor car age

Why compare these three?

Cambridge is often compared with Oxford, and Brighton is not only where I used to live but also the only UK seaside resort with a direct rail link from Cambridge. One that was opened twenty years after I might have found it useful instead of having to interchange on the Victoria Line in London!

Anyway, we have:

Above – insets of Oxford and Brighton’s front pages, reflecting very different ages and cultures.

One of the things they all have in common is trying to come to terms with the expansion of motor car use. At the same time they also try to capture the architectural spirit of the age that involves large scale slum clearance and the ridding of entire rows of Victorian era housing deemed condemned, despite the views of communities living within them. And let’s be honest, there were more than a few that needed demolishing on public health grounds. The inevitable problem with comprehensive redevelopment though is that you end up losing buildings that people either value, or that are still in a good enough condition to be renovated and upgraded.

In the case of Oxford, Thomas Sharp included a number of lavishly colourful images that neither the reports from Cambridge or Brighton can compare with. They are just in a different league.

Above – Sharp p108

In the case of Holford and Wright, the photographs are there but in black and white, and mainly to illustrate some of the problems that the authors intend their proposals to help solve. Yet as subsequent reports tell us, there were those in Cambridge in the 1960s who already considered Holford & Wright’s proposals to be obsolete. Not surprisingly, by the 1970s Central Government was already working on major dual carriageway and motorway bypasses that were proposed as ring roads by both Holford & Wright, and also by Davidge in his 1934 report for Cambridge.

In Brighton’s case, the proposals for Brighton Borough Council take no prisoners.

Above – from p 89, the Brighton Central Area Report 1972

Where the words on the caption in bold North Spine Road are on the map above, that’s where the main railway station is. Walk straight out of the railway station and it’s a downhill walk until you hit the seaside. You can see the see from the station entrance on a good day.

Just as Holford and Wright proposed to plough a new main road parallel to Gwydir Street, Wilson & Wormsley, the chaps behind Brighton’s plans, proposed similar for North Laine.

Left – Holford and Wright’s proposals for Cambridge in 1950 from their main map.

At the very top you can see what has become Elizabeth Way Bridge crossing the River Cam in white. In the top right the circles are the gasometers of the old gas works. Their proposals would have had a main road from the Elizabeth Way/Newmarket Road/East Road roundabout ploughing through the St Matthew’s/Petersfield community (you can see the green outline of Mill Road Cemetery to the left of the thick red line of the road) that then forms a new roundabout on Mill Road just by Mill Road Library and the bridge. The road then links to Devonshire Road and into the railway station area.

North Laine in Brighton – worth defending.

Have a look at the history here.

I spent much of 2001/02 in this part of Brighton to avoid having to go into university for anything other than the essentials. With so few lectures and seminars on my course (economics), and never having really settled in with any of the students there, I spent most of my time hanging around with the environmentalists in and around the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre. So I became very familiar with North Laine. Take a walk through Kensington Gardens here. At least half of that would have been lost, as this diagram shows:

Above – the North Road area as proposed in 1972. The main road going through the middle of it never got built, fortunately. Otherwise the pedestrianised Kensington Gardens would have been drowned out by the noise of the motor traffic.

“What’s changed in the 20 years since?”

In the years that followed after I returned to Cambridge in 2002, the wasteland by the swimming pool was inevitably built on. It’s just sad that the colour and the vibrance of North Laine that I was so familiar with was not extended to the new developments around the new Jubilee Library. I remember feeling that sadness when I visited during my civil service days.

Above – Jubilee Street, Brighton.

This used to be wasteland used as a car park that I’d cross to get to the swimming pool just beyond the pizza place in the image. What angered people at the time when the first proposals were made was the likelihood of big brands coming in to what we all felt at the time was an ‘independent’ part of town. There’s a bitter irony about the fate of Pizza Express, whose owners loaded it up with debt that was and is utterly unsustainable.

The similarities between North Laine, Brighton, and Mill Road, Cambridge, are striking. Both fought off various developers and developments over time – with mixed success. As I look on the square in the image above, I see so many similarities with the controversy around Brookgate’s redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station – the same soulless bland ‘could be anywhere’ architecture, and the greyness and colour palates lacking a life and vibrancy of their own.

In a way the histories and what became of the various proposals over the decades would make for a fascinating historical study, comparing the three cities. Because there is so much we can learn from each other.

Food for thought?

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