Cambridge’s ‘unprecented’ new district promotes best practice for sustainable development

The University of Cambridge's desire to retain staff has led to the creation of a £1bn sustainable community equipped with some of the UK's largest and most innovative sustainability features. edie speaks to project manager Heather Topel to find out if sustainability is a new selling point for residents.

Currently, 54% of the world’s population resides in urban locations, with the number set to rise to 70% within a decade. It’s a global megatrend city planners are aware of, but the rapid acceleration of this process makes it hard to plan for.

Urbanisation, at least in the movies, is often depicted as a claustrophobic, dystopian future brimming with high-rises and social inequality. Fact is less strange than fiction, but concerns rightly exist as to what impact urbanisation will have on water consumption, land use and natural resources. While the flat and quaint streets of Cambridge are a farcry from the themes associated with urbanisation, they are in fact an example of where urban expansion has championed sustainability.

Wedged between the outskirts of the city and the M11, what was once describe as flat, inaccessible and featureless land has been transformed into a £1bn urban districting featuring some of the UK’s most impressive innovations.

The University of Cambridge has worked with local partners and the city council to create the sustainable community, known as Eddington. The 150-hectare site is embedding processes that can lower water consumption, reduce waste and minimise emissions, all with the aim of creating a legacy “unprecedented in scale and ambition” that provides a flourishing community for the University’s staff and students.

North West Cambridge Development

“We plan for this to be an integrated part of the city by the time it is finished, and it will be sustainable, long-lasting and ambitious,” Heather Topel, the project director of the North West Cambridge Development, the first phase of which is Eddington, tells edie.

“It differentiates the University from large-scale housebuilders as we’re not going to cut and run. We’ll be managing many of the outcomes, open spaces and streets and we have an interest in the long-term impact of the estate on the wider community.”

Topel, who spent a decade as planning senior director at AECOM prior to joining the Cambridge development team in 2013, has overall responsibility for the management of the project. The overarching project is a £2bn+ research development that provides the University with academic and commercial research facilities to support its growth.

At the heart of the development sits Eddington. The 150-hectare site will consist of 1,500 homes for university and college workers, 1,500 private residential homes, 2,000 post-graduate student bed spaces and 40,000 square metres for research institutes and private research facilities linked to the University.

Building a £1bn community on former farmland raises questions about the role of green belts in order to satisfy housing demand. Topel explains that housing affordability became an issue in Cambridge as far back as the 1980s. It was around this time that the University realised that competing globally meant it had to retain the best staff, which is where the idea of Eddington was born.

“The University looked at its land holdings to identify if it had any opportunities to address housing issues for staff,” Topel says. “[The Eddington development] was the main site in terms of opportunities.

“To maintain its reputation as a world leader, the University must continue to develop and grow. It has been thinking about this since the 80s and the development gives it the chance to retain staff, manage impact and also raise the bar for environmental standards.”


The Masterplan was developed in the early 2000s, with the planning application eventually granted in 2013. Whereas some developers would be content with rolling out cost-effective, affordable accommodation before calling it a day, the Eddington project, as described on the development’s website, is “is part of the University’s masterplan to safeguard its future as a world-leading university”.

According to Topel, sustainability was not only examined to lower the costs of the project but is also used as a lever to attract and retain staff to the new community. Phase One of the project started in 2015 and finishes later this year, with around 325 post-graduate rooms and 700 rooms set aside for staff completed and some already occupied.

These homes were built to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5, although the standard is now defunct, while all non-residential buildings are designed to achieve BREEAM Excellent or higher. Topel reveals that a nursery and community centre in the heart of the development is on track to achieve BREEAM Outstanding.

The homes tap into a range of sustainability features dotted around Eddington that are designed to reduce heating, cooling and electricity costs for residents. The buildings, both residential and non-residential, will use an energy centre and district heating network to source heat and power, with solar panels – that are placed onto all residential buildings – will ensure that at least one-fifth of electricity consumption is sourced onsite from renewables.

All properties are also connected to the district heating network, which provides heating and hot water to the community. While the decision to fit the energy centre with the CHP units was driven by environmental aspirations, Topel notes that it helps with the management of the properties, streamlining the maintenance process. In fact, the only buildings not linked to the CHP system are the supermarkets – currently just a Sainsbury’s – as they have their own heating contracts in place.


Eddington also features one of the largest underground bin systems in the UK. Once the development is fully completed it is estimated that 450 underground bins, supplied by Sotkon UK, will be used.

“We took an early decision that there would be no wheelie bins on site,” Topel explains. “Most new housing estates are designed beautifully, but if you arrive there on the wrong day you can’t see the housing over the bins stacked up in front of the properties. In Cambridge, you sometimes can’t walk down the pavement.

“We worked with the local authorities to develop a new strategy which puts underground bins in bays of three, and the size of two carpark spaces, all within a certain number of metres for every front door. They separate waste at the source.”

Each underground bin can replace 20 wheelie bins, and each home has access to three different bins designed for waste segregation. Smart sensors are used to inform the waste collectors when the underground system is nearing capacity and a collection is arranged. Not only is the system designed to reduce waste contamination, which in turn boosts the volume of materials that can be recycled, but it will also lower emissions by taking away the stop-start collection of a traditional bin lorry collection.


The development sounds beneficial to the soon-to-be residents of Eddington, but the development team wants to ensure that nearby communities also benefit.

Before the Eddington community was even dreamt up, the flat farmland did little to help the nearby village of Girton in preventing flooding. The village as always been prone to floods, but the farmland would often succumb to heavy rain. Eddington, on the other hand, will help Girton combat flooding through the use of manmade lakes designed to hold six million litres of water, while elevated areas of land will act as designated flood plains.

The North West Cambridge Development team claim that Eddington is home to the largest water recycling system in the country, with any collected water pushed through a site-wide SuDS system to be used for non-potable uses such as flushing water and irrigation.

The water recycling system will cut water consumption onsite to 80 litres per person, almost half the Cambridge average of 150 litres.

“The lakes are a fundamental part of the flood management strategy,” Topel adds. “In cases of extreme rainfall, we hold the water in the lakes, and then it is flowed at a slow rate into the watercourse to improve the flooding situation.

“It’s multifunctional, as it also serves biodiversity, recreation and our public arts strategy, as well have one of two public art pieces dotted along the lakeside.”

The earth extracted during the creation of the lakes has also be reused to create manmade hills that obscure views of the nearby motorway.



The expected influx of staff and students housed at the development could impact the air quality through an increase in transport emissions. Instead, Eddington has set a target to ensure that just 40% of journeys made to and from the site are by car.

The project team is incentivising a bike loan scheme for new residents and car clubs are also being utilised to reduce vehicle ownership. So far, the E-Car Club has deployed two hybrid vehicles at Eddington. Topel notes that car parking spaces are available, albeit limited, for staff, but that they have to be rented separately from the properties.

The University’s approval will be sought for future phases, with planning permission scheduled, in order to adapt to the growth of the University over the next 15-20 years. Residents will be encouraged to provide feedback on the community approach to the project.

Topel also features on edie’s Sustainable Business Covered podcast, where she outlines plans for the future of Eddington. Outside of finalising the last two phases of the project, Topel wants to embed a sense of belonging at Eddington, whereby residents are proud of the sustainability credentials listed, but also feel like it is a living and vibrant part of Cambridge.

“We have two more phases to come until we ramp up to about 3,000 homes,” Topel adds “But while it’s important for us to embed sustainability, its just as key for us to build a community and turning our mind to what’s going to make people want to come here and be part of this.”

Matt Mace

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