Thursday, October 15, 2015

cambridge goes west

so i've dipped my toe into cambridge (including the river) twice in 5 decades -

first time was traditional experience of being at Trinity College, living right in
the middle of it all surrounded by the full on college and university expeirences of social and academic life mingling via the rich, messy ways they do.

the second time has been very department-centric, in the computer lab just after (15 years ago) it moved to the newly occupied West Cambridge site.
At first, this was a great experience, still zooming back to town for events in college(s) and doing formal halls here there and everywhere, attending seminars on everything under the sun (and the far side of the universe). Excellent.

However, in the past few years, West cambridge has gotten more and more distant from town, and has become more and more of a hi-tech island, isolated from the University, indeed, from time to time, almost cut off by buidling work As I type, the normal cycle/footpath route into town is blocked (and has been for months) by annoying building work o nthe new physics of medicine building. Plans for new bus ways to Cambourne look all set to massacre the area again. The proposal to fill in the Paddock in front of the Vet School threatens us with a wind tunnel (without recourse to the nearby Whittle lab) and no greenery to stare at when lost in thought, and yet more glass/metal buildings, hey, we might as well be in downtown Cambridge Massachusetts, not rural Cambridgeshire, England. West Cambridge, 15 years in, still has zero shops, zero restaurants, zero social spaces worth talking about, zero pubs, zero Cambridge style. It is pretty terrible.

The treatment of the (I believe) 3000 or so people that work and study here is 2nd class - I do not hold out a lot of hope that future developments will prioritize people - they will be about "impressive" builds (stupidly, given we don't have the money to compete on that basis with the likes of Harvard or MIT), rather than nurturing the social, the heterogeneous, messy, cultural weirdness that makes Cambridge University what it is (or should I say was, as it is vanishing).

This is not a good thing. And I am not saying this coz I am unhappy here - its great. It is just not as great as it was in several ways.


Malcolm Scott said...

I see a pattern across the University: the current Estates Management division is extremely reluctant to actually talk to the users of their buildings. They have Grand Plans and don't want pesky user requirements to get in the way of them. In at least one case this almost resulted in offices being built with absolutely no IT provision.

Stephen Kell said...

Great summary of the frustrations I also feel, Jon.

Out-of-town sites automatically put the Cambridge experience on the back foot, albeit (I optimistically believe) not terminally. Even now that I again have a College to pop into town to (most postdocs don't), I tend to find excuses not to go to lunch there, because if I'm under the work-cosh, the 10+10 minutes makes a big difference. But I miss out on much of that great messy Cambridge stuff as a result.

Out of interest, any idea what (if anything) has actually changed to create the "more distant" feeling in West Cambridge? To me it seems more like a conspicuous failure to improve on what has always been a poor situation.

Malcolm, that's an interesting data point. I have also found Estate Management to be some mixture of incompetent and obstructive on several different occasions, in direct interaction. More generally, their actions in managing the sites, running catering etc., speak for themselves. They definitely don't have much clue about the kind of Cambridge culture Jon talks about.

Then again: why should they? It's "our" job, i.e. the allegedly self-governing academics/scholars, to give them the right instructions. Somehow we're not getting through to them... I don't quite understand who EM management report to and where that interaction is scrutinised, but I'm very interested in finding out.

jon crowcroft said...

The addition of more CAPE building, the nw Physics of Medicine and proposed buildings on the Paddock site, will massively overstretch transport links, and all the local catering facilities (or lack thereof). During the building works, there is no attention paid to due care for pedestrians and cyclist who work here (>3000 people now), and the plans don't seem to include any idea that humans will continue to be the main "resource" of the University. Its appalling. Agree with Malcolm and Stephen that the lack of consultation about this with existing (large) population of occupants is terrible. The lack of pleasant linkage to the Cambridge culture will be the death of the place as a center of excellence. The alternatives 45 minutes south of here don't have these problems (the context is different, but that's no excuse).

Is no-one taking a view on "what will this look like 50 years from now"?