Thursday, 3 April 2014

Oxford Landscapes

The landscapes in and around Oxford provide, for me, ample food  for thought regarding approaches to urban design. Take this example, a view from Blenheim Palace, just north of Oxford. This naturalistic landscape has virtually nothing natural about it and was created to the designs of Capability Brown. A contrived landscape like this evokes many picturesque associations. When I see the island on the lake with its tall  Cyprus trees , like many I imagine, I am reminded of the painting  The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Brocklin.  A late Romantic like Arnold Bocklin was simply referring back to the picturesque tradition, a tradition which predates Capability Brown himself.

Landscapes like this and similar landscapes like Stowe are often taken as the pinnacles of British landscape design. Personally, however, I would rather be in Oxford itself. Surely a city like this provides the ultimate example of  a garden city, a city where landscape has been married to architecture to produce perhaps the most delightful, liveable city in the UK.

The Botanic Gardens, the grounds of Christ Church College, Port Meadows, the University Parks together with ten of the college gardens are on the national list of historic parks and gardens. In all, there are 417 gardens and parks  within the boundary of the City of Oxford which are usually accessible to the public. 52% of the land within the city is green land.

As you move through the fabric of Oxford, you become aware of what seems like a basically urban spectacle.

Only when you get closer to buildings do you become aware of another dimension. Vistas open out to reveal extraordinary natural landscaping such as the grounds of Trinity College.

A landscape replete with routes and incidents. 

Worcester College incorporates an orchard within its grounds.

Cars are almost entirely banned from the centre of Oxford. This allows streets to be appropriated in the summer for cafes. Park and ride facilities allow motorists to park at the edge of the city and take public transport into the centre.

Bike lanes have been provided throughout the city.

The city’s name refers to its origins as a fording place on a river. The city is sited around the confluence of two rivers, The river Isis  (Thames)  and Cherwell. These, together with the Oxford canal have created ample opportunity to create linear parks.

The Oxford canal on the right with the Isis (Thames) to the left.

The river Cherwell resembles an Indian river in that it seems to have two river beds. Its flood plain creates a linear park in the centre of the city.

Privacy is allowed in the college grounds by the simple device of the railing. This allows views in but prevents straying members of the public wandering in.

An additional   level of privacy is created by the simple device of the wall used to enclose   the famous quadrangles.

Large areas of green land has been preserved quite close to the city centre.  A good example of this would be Christchurch Meadows.

Oxford’s Science Park can be found on the edge of the city. Its presence is signified by a large black building visible from the A4074. Much of its layout follows the familiar pavilions-in-the-park  type theme.  Although such developments have become ubiquitous in Britain in recent decades, the landscape strategy clearly attempts to respond to the specific as opposed to generic qualities of the site. Many of the buildings are orientated towards Littlemore Brook which is provided with a riverside walk.

Most the Science Park’s  streets are  devoid of any pedestrian life.

Extraordinary resources have been lavished in landscaping  car parking spaces.

Although the development has been provided with gymnasium plus café it is doubtful whether this can be really considered to be a mixed-use development.

There has been much discussion over the appropriate form the next wave of British urban development should take. An approach which I think has much potential is that of the retrofit. A business park such as this could be seen as the nucleus of new neighbourhoods as opposed to mono-functional zones. The thinking behind the business park presumably is that the tranquility necessary for work is only possible in buildings separate from city centres, surrounded by countryside. The example of Oxford city centre shows that very private activities such as teaching facilities, libraries and halls of residence can be successfully incorporated into a city centre.

An intellectual like Paul Virilio has often argued that settlement patterns are often determined by transportation patterns. The car-based convenience of the business park can be contrasted with the transport strategy of a historic city such as  Oxford where visitors  usually use park and ride  facilities, leaving their cars on the outskirts of the city to make their journey into the city centre by bus. The challenge to urban designers  is to produce the urban environments of the future where the environment is of such high quality that people will actually be prepared to give up their cars or at least accept a greatly reduced role for them. Perhaps the business people of the future will adopt the practice of Oxford students who often cycle to work.

The expansion of a  city like Oxford might provide an ideal site for growth to solve Britain’s  housing shortage. A site such as Oxford Science park could have  housing developments  built next to them together with some retrofitting of the office buildings into more mixed-use functions.

Another strategic criteria for town expansion is the issue of city size.  The Garden City and  New Town Movements always proposed that cities should only be allowed to reach a certain size and that somewhere between 33,000 to 200,000 was the optimum size for a city. Obviously Oxford would fulfil this criteria. The site is several miles from the city centre, separated by many “green breaks”.

Lancelot  ”Capability”  Brown  acquired his nickname through his habit of telling his clients that their sites had  great “capabilities.” Surely a site like Oxford Science Park has the capability  to provide a starting  point for a mixed-use expansion of Oxford.

( Thanks to Google for aerial view of river Cherwell)

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