Ian Green, Chairman of Oxford Civic Society

Oxford’s Built and Natural Environment

Oxford’s natural constraints on development are a blessing – but also a problem for connectivity. 86% of the population lives east of the Cherwell, separated from the city centre by the river, whilst the historic buildings and street pattern, and river flood plains effectively obstruct cross-town transit. By 2050, radical proposals like tunnels will not have solved this conundrum. But the city will be drastically improved, by changes in behaviour – the streets will not be dominated by parked cars and stationary traffic, and the air will not be loaded with toxic chemicals; road pricing, parking charges and rapidly-evolving vehicle technology will see to that. Meanwhile, better planning and investment in district centres, and the development of the rail corridors will distribute business and provide better connections across the city and into the hinterland.

The skyline of the historic core will continue to be revered, protected and enhanced, along with the green setting. But densification of development, initiated in the draft Local Plan 2036 by better use of brownfield sites, judicious design and careful consideration of heights will prevail. Highest densities will be close to public transport and local facilities, with minimal parking provision. Mixed-use and adaptable development will predominate, in response to the unpredictable effects of new technologies. Densification will increase housing supply and make quality public transport viable. The Green Belt will be encroached upon, but more green space will be created, and its multiple functions better recognised and protected.
Well before 2050, planning of development will be integrated with transport planning and environmental impact. Employment and residential developments will be linked with safe and attractive cycling and zero-emissions public transport facilities.

Improving the quality as well as increasing the quantity of residential developments is a key component of our Vision. Better design will place more emphasis on place, community and context, encourage healthy lifestyles, and strong communities, and meet the needs of changing society.

Management of the natural environment includes promoting biodiversity, better water management and improving air quality. As recommended in the draft Local Plan, biodiversity, of all species will be promoted, not just those legally protected, and damage to key sites avoided. Internationally-important sites like Port Meadow SAC, and those of national importance (SSSIs) will have protection strengthened. Local sites with biodiversity interest have important potential for connecting larger areas of habitat, supporting biodiversity across the city. Water use will be minimised and flooding risk mitigated.

To achieve this vision, technological change will be less important than fiscal reforms and national regulatory policies, relating to infrastructure provision, land-use and social and housing policies. These shape development patterns and the ability to manage the built and natural environment. The high level of centralisation of public finance in the UK is correlated with city governance arrangements which do not match the city’s needs for powers and flexibility. Over-centralisation also discourages citizens, civic organisations and even the private sector from engaging with local governance. Such national reforms cannot be tackled by a city alone, but the voice of a coalition of fast-growing UK cities is strong (especially with the growing understanding of their essential role in the national economy). Could being part of a coalition of like-minded cities to promote regulatory reform be part of our Vision?

The visions of some UK cities have an inter-regional and trans-national character. Most UK cities participate in different systems of cities with overlapping geographies internationally and nationally. In particular, Oxford’s relationship to London’s westward expansion needs strategic guidance. Countries displaying regional-level co-ordination are often more effective at managing urban quality of life and inequality. Is an Oxford City-region a Vision we should consider?