Yesterday I visited the new Barton Park development on the outskirts of Oxford, along with Matthieu, Christine, and Peter. It was exciting to see a new district while it isn’t even finished yet.
According to this press release, 40% of the development is indirectly owned by the city council. So this would be the closest thing to a municipal housing project as Oxford has had in at least a decade. It’s not just housing either, there’s a new school, a commercial area (?), and a kind of integrated car park with two bus stops. This place used to be a couple of fields and an electric substation on the edge of a dual carriageway, and you can see it transforming into an entirely new part of Oxford.
It would be less optimistic to point out that, aside from secure council tenancies, the private flats will be up for sale for £377,500 at the cheapest. It’s also the first phase of a growing city expansion, with the city border creeping outwards, we’ve struck out and we’re building on the green belt now. I don’t think Oxford would be any better off if it were bulked out by suburban housing, and I’m suspicious of housing companies taking advantage of the surge in demand.
Barton Park is also physically isolated by the ring road, much like Barton itself. If you’re on your bike there are two crossings into the city: one heads into Northway and the other into Headington.
While we were going round I took photos and traced the route by GPS, and here’s what that looked like against Google Maps satellite imagery.
And against the concept drawing.
I was thinking that this estate will probably end up fully surveyed before the last resident moves into the last house, and that’s actually a pretty unique situation. We take it for granted that cartography means mapping something which already exists, but when you trace out the contours of a building site you’re actually doing something speculative. You’re describing the future.
We built this house
This leads to a parallel chain of thought about the historical specificity of amateur projects. Just imagine that something like Wikipedia was founded when I was just a child, and I went to school while all that knowledge was coming online. A new editor joining Wikipedia today is building on the accumulated efforts of a past generation. It’s a fantastic resource to leave behind, but how do young(er) people feel about what has been passed on to them?
There’s a great potential in the incompleteness of these projects, the tantalising empty patches, new ground for all that untapped creativity and labour. So I was imagining the person who moves into their new flat in Barton Park. If they’re anything like me they’ll jump online to trace out their building… only to find that it’s already there. How helpful! But I wonder if we’ve denied them the opportunity to fill in that blank space, the opportunity to be the first?