By Eponine Howarth
Cambridge stands as the 'United Kingdom's most unequal city.' An article by Ferguson published in The Guardian in 2020 highlights that the top 6% of earners living in Cambridge earn 19% of the total income generated, while the bottom 20% only account for 2% of that total. Inequalities in Cambridge are not limited to income: spatial inequality also operates both in apparent and insidious ways.
A 2018 study by Adams and Xavier in The Guardian found that the two major Cambridge landowners, St John's College and Trinity College, own 10,500 hectares of land across the UK, valued £1.1 billion. Therefore, these two colleges own more than half of the reported 17,000 hectares of land owned by Cambridge colleges. These colleges severely limit access to much of their land, limiting Cambridge residents' access to swathes of outdoor space in their own town, infringing on their 'right to the city'. These colleges and others utilise oppressive structures in the urban space and 'hostile architecture' to reinforce these boundaries. Instead, the University of Cambridge and colleges should strive to promote more inclusive forms of architecture.
Right to the City
In his seminal work, The Right to the City, Lefebvre discusses the dispossession of inhabitants. While dispossession can mean different things, such as wrongful eviction, the issue in Cambridge is centered around the reduction of publicly available space. Dispossession damages the ability of inhabitants to enjoy and participate in urban life freely. Many of the colleges, for instance, own green space across the city that inhabitants cannot enjoy. Lefebvre saw this as the struggle to augment the rights of urban inhabitants against the property rights of owners. Though interpretations vary, the right to the city was clearly a revolutionary concept for urban theorists, providing a framework for the reclamation of space by those marginalised through capital accumulation.
In Cambridge's centre, the sign 'Private - No Entry' features extensively at the entrance of colleges, within colleges themselve, and before green spaces owned by colleges, thereby considerably limiting access to the city's inhabitants. It is illustrative of Lefebvre's understanding of the struggle between the rights of urban inhabitants against the property rights of owners. At St John's College Sports Ground for example, a shortcut between Queen's Road and Grange Road exists that cuts a pedestrian's journey time, and facilitates access to the Bus U Playing Field stop. A small gate guards the pathway, which reads: "Members of the public may use the path between Queen's Road and Grange Road. But there is no right of way as these are private playing fields. You may use the path at your own risk." While exclusion from private property is often justified to allow inhabitants to enjoy their right to family and private life, it becomes problematic in the context of the city of Cambridge, where so much of the land in the very centre of the city excludes many of its inhabitants. Further, the extensive ownership of land by colleges not only affects access to public space, but people's ability to rent or buy living space, due to real limits on supply. As a result, it isn't surprising that Cambridge shows some of the highest housing prices in the country. So, while students of the University of Cambridge or at least certain colleges often benefit from access to space across the city, often inhabitants do not.
In the context of exclusion, hostile architecture is also an urban design strategy that uses elements of the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behaviour, often in densely populated and urban spaces. Also known as defensive urban design, the term hostile architecture is often associated with items like "anti-homeless spikes" (studs embedded in flat surfaces to make sleeping on them impractical) which usually affects young people, disabled people, poor people, or the homeless most heavily.
Fences are also common forms of exclusionary design, often used to prevent access to spaces. Again, while in the general context of private property this may be justified, the extent of the exclusion of inhabitants of Cambridge across the city is alarming. Defensive architecture, such as spikes, bumps or other types of pointed structures typically placed on ledges outside buildings, only further this sense of boundary and prohibition.
Further, one of the most common forms of hostile architecture takes the form of surveillance. Security cameras feature at the entrance of most, if not all, colleges. Indeed, while security cameras do not physically prevent people from engaging in certain behaviours (in contrast to spikes that directly prohibit individuals from sitting on a ledge, lying on a bench etc.), according to public policy scholar Robert Rosenberg, they can restrict actions in public spaces through enabling remote oversight and increasing the fear of retaliation for socially 'taboo' actions.
Nonetheless, some colleges do engage in more inclusive forms of architecture. Lucy Cavendish College, for instance, does not have a front gate and is open, though the fences on Madingley Road feature spikes. Some of the gates at Magdalene College feature rounded edges on its fences. In essence, these architectural decisions promote a departure from the University of Cambridge and its colleges as a form of 'gated community' with strictly controlled entrances, and a closed perimeter of walls and fences which inevitably enhance social divides, and exclusion within the city.