Editorial: How Oxford Plans:Lessons for Berkeley By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday June 07, 2005

In Oxford as in Berkeley, housing has become a major political issue. Decisions on how many new homes are needed in Britain start with the central government, with quotas being set by regional planning groups similar to the Association of Bay Area Govern ments. The South East England Regional Assembly is putting together a 20-year plan in consultation with the Oxfordshire County Council, but the County Council’s plan is now facing opposition from Oxford City Council’s Administration.  

An interesting diff erence from Berkeley is that the Administration (corresponding to Berkeley’s managerial staff) is quite up front about having its own agenda. When I visited the planning department at Oxford’s city headquarters, I picked up a glossy magazine, complete wit h advertisements, in which the Administration argued on behalf of its ideas about where new housing should be located in Oxfordshire. In brief, they think it should be in the city of Oxford where possible. But Oxford is already dense, with 61 homes per hectare as compared with the national target range of 30 to 50 homes per hectare.  

The young planner I interviewed said that he wasn’t sure how much more “town cramming” people were going to be willing to tolerate. Oxfordshire County Council’s alternative is to build more housing on the edges of the three or four towns of 20,000-30,000 population on the outer edge of the county, outside Oxford’s long-established greenbelt. Oxford City’s planners think that would just encourage more commuting.  

A feature o f the City Administration’s plan which is controversial is their proposal to take a section of the greenbelt, amounting to half of one percent of the total, to build what they call as a “well-designed sustainable community” of five thousand homes. As they describe it, it sounds very much like the “new towns” which have been a gleam in the eyes of British planners since early in the 20th century. Their history is one of mixed success and failure.  

Why is there a housing shortage, I asked? My informant tol d me that the overall population of Britain isn’t increasing by any dramatic amount, even with some immigration, but household size is changing. People are living in smaller groups: single-parent families, young wage-earners on their own instead of in fam ily homes, old people. We see the same thing in Berkeley. Where students used to be happy enough to live in dorms with bath down the hall, they now want their own units shared by no more than four people, with kitchens and multiple bathrooms.  

Britain has also abandoned its attempt to prevent the population from migrating en masse to its South East region. For a long time there were government incentives to encourage people to move to the depopulated north, but no more. The pressure on the coastal U.S., especially California, is the same kind of problem, and won’t be solved by insisting that people move back to Oklahoma. 

What about student pressure on Oxford’s housing? Here there are 27,000 students in a city of 134,000. In Berkeley we have closer to 35,000 in a city of 109,000; the University of California is coy with exact numbers. Most of Oxford’s students are housed by their university. How did the city of Oxford accomplish that, I asked? It’s simple. The university doesn’t have “development rights,” i.e. it must follow the city’s zoning regulation or apply for a variance, even on land owned by the university or its colleges. When the city wants the university to build more housing, it simply designates the appropriate area as housing only, and the university is forced to build housing or nothing.  

I did a quick check of other Berkeley hot buttons. Height limit? 18.5 metres, or about 60 feet, set so that Oxford’s famous spires will not be hidden. One consequence is a boring roof line, since everyon e builds to the limit. Pedestrian streets? “Oxford has been too successful with those,” said my informant. Privatized diesel busses are everywhere, and they’re blamed for bad air quality. There’s an electric signboard in the city administration building r ating the day’s carbon monoxide level.  

Local retail? It’s big chains on the High Street these days, including Starbuck’s and Borders. But things are bustling—no rows of empty storefronts as in Berkeley. This is a consequence of the national government’s sea-change on mall development in the mid-’90s—where malls were once encouraged, now they’re effectively banned as a way of supporting town centres. The policy started under the Tories, but Labour has kept it up.  

This doesn’t mean that the charming local stores have lost out completely. Those which have survived are so good that they don’t need to depend on government protection for their success. 

Blackwell’s Bookstore is heaven on earth, though it’s a national and international powerhouse as well as Oxford’s local institution. It offers comfortable armchairs, an excellent café and well-read clerks who are featured as personalities in Blackwell’s ads—and all the books in the world, with plenty of time and encouragement to sit down and read them for as long as you want. I saw a young mother reading stories to her child in the café for at least an hour, with no one complaining. In Oxford, they’ve got Borders beat by a mile. Some Berkeley booksellers might take a leaf or two from Blackwell’s book.