The Westgate Shopping Centre is only one of the vast building projects planned for Oxford. Oxford University will redevelop the Radcliffe Infirmary Site and is building a vast book store in the flood-plain of Osney Mead. The Poly is redeveloping Headington. The so-called West End, nearly a quarter of the city centre, is going to be redeveloped into a cross between Vegas and a Midlands industrial estate. The railway station is to be redeveloped. Oxford University plans to build 200 homes at Wolvercote. A housing estate of up to 8,000 homes will probably be built at Grenoble Road. Smaller schemes include a housing estate at Castle Mill Boatyard.
The university’s RI plans are the only ones which have any real potential to better the place, to build something which people will travel to see and which will be admired in the next century. The book depository looks like a factory. The Brookes plans look like those of a former Poly anxious that we should forget its origins. The civic proposals look like reheated plans from the 1970s, lots of cheaply-built girder-and-glass office blocks leavened with token gestures towards a dimly-understood cultural heritage with a cod-European flavour.
We will have “boulevards” and “piazzas” all over the place and lots of “cafe culture” just like they do abroad. It will be a bit like – well, Toronto comes to mind, Toronto with a few ancient academic buildings hemmed in at the centre with some pastiche bits copied from Berlin or Stockholm round the edges.
There has been no real debate about this transition from a small academic-cum-industrial city into Gotham City. The developers rule here, and find easy meat amongst small-time councillors dazzled by the prospect of one day being in charge of a big city.
What is most frightening about all this is that the responsibility for getting it right will fall on two groups of people wholly unfitted for the purpose or, indeed, for any purpose – Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways Department and Oxford City Council’s Planning Department.
There is no evidence that anyone has taken account of the traffic implications of all this building – either of the end-result or of the years of parallel developments. Sure, it has been talked about as a problem and millions have been allocated for it. Oxfordshire Highways is good at spending millions, but the concept of a strategy is way beyond them. Their strategic horizon is bounded by the idea of blocking traffic – if you doubt me on this, go and stand in Frideswide Square, the centre-piece of the Oxford Transport Strategy, and see if you could devise a more comprehensive way of screwing up traffic-flow.
Was this stupid-deliberate or stupid-too-thick-to-know-better? It is hard to tell.
The devisers of this mess will be in charge of getting people to and from the offices and shops in our gleaming new city. God help us.
Oxford’s planners are the ideal team for the job of dumping hundreds of acres of concrete and glass on to a sensitive historic site. Where others might feel constrained by the beauty of the existing city, and would struggle to try and integrate the old with the new, Oxford’s planning team will feel no such constraints. It is hard to tell whether they are in thrall to the developers, too dense to see what they are destroying, too idle to care, or consumed with hatred for anything beautiful. I hesitate to suggest the first of these without evidence and the last requires a deeper psychological analysis than I am equipped to bring to the subject, so that makes it stupidity or idleness.
Here is an example of Oxford’s planning department’s aesthetic judgment as applied to the view of the city from the north-west across Port Meadow:
The view to the south is just as helpful an indicator of the sort of quality we can expect from Oxford’s planners.
These are not industrial sheds or worker housing in Volgograd, but accommodation blocks erected by the world-famous University of Oxford. Bland and cheaply-built, with no architectural merit at all, these dominate the south end of Port Meadow and illustrate exactly the contempt which both the university and the planners show to the city’s fringes. They were stuck on the wasteland of former railway sidings, and that fact determined their importance and their style. There was no sense that they represented the new and visible fringe of the city and that they should be built with the aim of elevating the area – just cheap utilitarian blocks thrown up quickly on cheap land.
To the planners, this was just a bit of land. An important local developer filed some plans and elevations. A dim drudge in the planning office proceeded with the procedures. It was nodded through by some dozy councillors who could not differentiate between Wren’s plans for St Paul’s and a child’s depiction of a Wendy House.
The result is not just a view sacrificed to mediocrity but another opportunity wasted.
Expect more like it as Oxford expands.