South Cambridge is under pressure to accommodate the expansion of Cambridge, a main city of science in the UK with strong economic and demographic growth. URBAN Silence worked with the Council in exploring how local character could be better promoted through a pragmatic planning tool developed through the community.

The Council was aware that Local Plan policies are inadequate to promote local distinctiveness and wanted to understand if a generic design guide for the area would be sufficient or if there was a more targeted and practical empowering communities at the same time. They called for consultants and for village communities to come forward and prepare 8 community-driven pilot Village Design Guides. Each consultant team would be free to develop its own methodology and content within a common framework, timescale and budget.

The resulting Design Guides, adopted as Supplementary Planning Guidance, address many of the concerns of the community and provide a cost-effective alternative to other planning tools. They can give agency to the community to shape and guide their area and engage more positively with development. URBAN Silence prepared Design Guides by for the villages of Fulbourn (5,000 people) and Histon & Impington (7,500 people).

The overall programme revealed some interesting and unexpected lessons to be learned:

  • Commonly understood urban design principles are based on market town formats and by-and-large inappropriate in the context of villages.
  • All villages are really different and require localised guidance: distinctiveness is at risk with generic guidance and when large developments impose a generic approach to ‘village design’.
  • The Council is well placed to advise on the technical front, but only communities can identify local character with precision, especially if supported by specialists, Like URBAN Silence, open to capture local, sometimes emotional, perspectives rather than rely on professional expertise.
  • Once a truly bottom-up methodology is established, communities are excited by the power of professional clarity and good graphics which captures what they always knew but could not effectively express.