The Wolfson Economics Prize: Here’s how we double the size of Oxford

Oxford: City of the future. Image: Getty.

Last night, the London think tank Policy Exchange announced the winner of its Wolfson Economics Prize. This year, the £250,000 prize was awarded to whoever it was who came up with the best plan to tackle Britain's housing crisis – specifically, by creating "a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular". Given the widespread opposition of existing homeowners to building anything anywhere in this country, this would be no mean feat.

Historically, “garden cities” have mostly meant either brand new towns, or massive expansions of tiny villages. But the winning team, led by David Rudlin of Manchester-based consultancy Urbed, took a different approach. Prevailing wisdom is that the economy of the future will be all about services, technology, knowledge and so forth. If you're going to build a lot of houses, then, it helps to do so near existing institutions that generate those things. Ideally, that means a university.

So the winning team came up with "Uxcester": a template for doubling the size of any city that already has a population of around 200,000. It's not based on any specific place, but is an amalgam of about 40 of them. Specifically, these ones:

Instead of just extending a city in all directions, Uxcester would mean adding "three substantial extensions", each of which would house around 50,000 people. All these homes would be within 10km from the city centre, and within a 10 minute walk from a tram stop (oh, the plan has trams, too, by the way). As a result, everyone should be able to get into town in half an hour or less.

Between these new developments, there'd be country parks and so forth (the “garden” bit of the garden city). So while we would be building on the green belt, in practice, we'd probably end actually making more green space accessible to the public, as opposed to the current morass of pony clubs and farm land that’s there now.

This design, as shown below, is known as the “snowflake” pattern. Awww.

Actually, there’s even more cutesy jargon in the plan. While the government would assemble the land and provide the infrastructure, it wouldn't actually build most of the housing. Instead, it'd sell it as individual plots and let the private sector do that part. This, Urbed says, is the "trellis" and "vine" model.

In theory, this is all very lovely. In practice, no British city actually wants to double in size, and translating theory into practice is going to be remarkably hard, as Urbed admits:

"We are also aware that by working in a fictional place we are avoiding some of the complexities, both political and practical, that each of these forty small cities face. The danger is that each will say 'that's all well and good but wouldn't work here'.”

So, they decided to test it by looking at a real city. Oxford is meant to be one of the great centres of the urban economy, but it's in danger of falling behind (it only has two science parks; in Cambridge, there are 18). To prevent this horrific fate, Urbed has set out how it could expand:

This plan would mean expanding the nearby settlements of Kidlington and Abingdon, and building on empty land to the east of Oxford. (To the west, this would be harder, so this area's been left untouched.) All these new suburbs would be linked by some kind of tram network, and protected from the elements by a new "flood attenuation system".

There's one other problem of course, brought about by high land prices:

"In the UK most of the money and talent in the house building industry is focused on unlocking the land through a contested planning system; on the Continent it is focused on what is built on that land."

Urbed's solution is to begin the process with a Garden City Act, which would give the government the power to make compulsory purchases of land, and then build on them. This shouldn't be expensive:  because it has no development value, green belt land is relatively cheap.

There would no doubt be political battles to fight before introducing any such policy, not least from the aggrieved homeowners, landowners and golf course who’d complain of the damage done by building new homes. But this proposal does at least move us beyond the fight over whether to build at all, and instead delves into how we might do so. It’s worth thinking about.

 

The other finalists were:

  • "Stoke Harbour", a new city of 144,000 people on Kent's Hoo Peninsula (runner up).

Homelessness charity Shelter, architects PRP, with advice from KPMG, Laing O'Rourke, Legal & General.

  • Four garden city "types", to be used to deliver up to 40 new garden cities over the next 25 years.

Consultancies Barton Willmore, with EC Harris, Pinsent Mason, Propernomics.

  • A new garden city south east of Maidstone Kent, to be served by trains on the High Speed 1 rail route.

Chris Blundell, a director of Golding Homes, writing in a personal capacity.

  • An "arc" of 30-40 new garden cities, of 25,000 people each. These would be built around London, from Southampton to Oxford to Cambridge to Felixstowe.

Wei Yang and Partners and Peter Freeman, in collaboration with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers, Shared Intelligence and Gardiner & Theobald.

All images taken from Urbed's "Uxchester Garden City" report. You can read the rest here.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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