United Kingdom - Oxford : A traditional English rural area turning into a globalized node of the knowledge economy

West of Greater London, Oxford and Oxfordshire epitomize the ideal English, green, rural landscape. In its center, the river Thames, central to the English identity, meanders. But this area is also transformed by the urbanisation process underway in the South East around Greater London. It is part of the fast growing commuter belt generating a demand for new housing developments and transport infrastructure. Finally the Oxford area tries to position itself as a world-class innovation cluster and to compete in order to bolster its economic growth. This region has many amenities it can rely on making it a very attractive place. The dynamics transforming this area play at different scales. (local, national, world) and may lead to conflicts that the different players, defending diverging interests, will have to solve. The future choices made will reveal the direction the United Kingdom will choose in the post Brexit era opening before us.


Image information

This image of Oxford in south-central England was taken by the Sentinel 2A satellite on March 27, 2020. It is a natural color image of native resolution at 10m.

The image on the right shows some geographical landmarks.

Contains information © COPERNICUS SENTINEL 2019, all rights reserved.

General presentation of the image

Oxford and Oxfordshire : at the heart of rural England, a growing cluster of the knowledge and innovation economy :

Oxfordshire, a river runs through it : the Thames

The river Thames is the central feature of the image. It flows from the north and meanders across a large flood plain nourished by the winter and spring high waters. The river has been harnessed. The main stream was modified in some places (Culham) and the many locks allow riverboats to navigate the river, a very popular activity in summer. As in the Bassin parisien (France), the flow of the Thames drainage basin is regulated by a series of dams. This prevents any disastrous flooding of the London area.

But the river Thames is not completely tamed in this area. Although the Thames has a modest mean discharge (24.8m3/sec in Oxford), the long profile of the river is quite flat. This means that the flood plain is large as the 2007 and 2014 floods so just proved The flood plain of the main river channel is left undeveloped and turned into public parks (such as Abbey meadows, Abingdon) or grazing land that can remain flooded for several months.

These meadows have a rich flora and are popular with hikers. You can also rub shoulders with rowers practising on the river. Numerous boat houses are set on the river banks between Oxford and Henley on Thames (south of the image) where the royal regatta is hosted every summer .

The river Thames has retained a natural character in this area .It has been preserved from industrialisation and flows exclusively through market towns, old rural settlements with their picturesque historic centres : Oxford, Abingdon, Dorchester, Henley on Thames as described by Jerome K Jerome in his book Three men in a boat.

The ideal English landscape : a rural landscape preserved

The river Thames is at the heart of a very rich landscape, an important part of the English identity : we can identify large farms mainly growing cereals. They are very representative of the intensive and mechanised British agriculture. But the huge cereal farms have not completely taken over the woods and grazing areas that still account for close to half of the agricultural land. They are very often the property of landlords keen to preserve the historical landscape and keep the rural character to the area. Blenheim palace and its immense park, property of the Malborough family, is a good example of the enduring importance of aristocratic control of the land. (cf Zoom 3)

The “right of way” movement has also contributed since the beginning of the XXth century to increase the recreational use of this rural area : hiking organisations make sure the numerous paths, visible on the edges of the fields, remain accessible to everyone. The different golf courses, isolated in the countryside around Oxford, also contribute the complexity of the landscape. We have here the example of a rural area that has combined productive and recreational functions for a long time resulting in a preserved and idealized English rural landscape.

This is particularly true for the rural habitat. In spite of a very strong demographic growth, scattered housing developments have so far been fairly rare. The small villages originate from ancient production units of the large noble estates. The ancient agricultural buildings have been converted into modern and sought after “barns”. The new housing developments are (so far) rare and of limited size due to numerous housing regulations and general planning.

Urban sprawl has so far been relatively limited for such a densely populated county (264 inhabitants/km²) The main exceptions are cottages built on the banks of the river Thames at the turn of the XIX century by the London bourgeoisie attracted by this landscape, made popular by landscape painters. The village of Sutton Courteney is a good example with its old thatch roofed converted barns, its cottages built along the Thames, its small Norman church where you can see the modest tomb of Eric Blair- alias George Orwell.

In the south-west, Oxfordshire meets the Chiltern ridge, for a long time a line separating the county from the London basin in terms of landscape but also of functional organisation. Now however, the Oxford area is ever more a part of the London megapolis.

The Oxford area : Great connectivity, yet preserved from the effects of mass transit

The transport network is a good indicator of the evolution of the area. We can see on the image the old and dense medieval road network converging in the different market towns (Oxford, Abingdon, Dorchester). These bridging point-towns are strategically located at the river Thames crossing points. They all feature historic bridges, mostly former tolls. They are now too narrow to absorb the traffic and create bottlenecks at rush hours.

Trains and motorways (A34, M40) have increased the attraction power of the London metropolis. You are now only 45m-1h away from Paddington station in central London and from Heathrow international the largest European airport. We can however notice that Oxfordshire has managed to keep away from the great motorways linking London to the Midlands (M 40) or Wales (M 4). Oxford’s train line is only of secondary importance.

The region benefits from a very good link to London while avoiding the inconvenience of heavy transit traffic the air and landscape pollution produces. Oxfordshire has thus been able so far to preserve its landscapes at the cost of congested local traffic however.

An area now attracted into the London orbit

The Oxford area has now partly become a satellite of the London conurbation. London and its expanding real estate market, one of the highest in the world, are the main driver of the suburbanisation of Oxfordshire. Commuters with higher salaries can buy themselves the suburban dream in a still preserved typical rural  area.

In this light, Oxfordshire must be viewed through the perspective of the great East/West divide structuring the geography of Greater London. The Eastern part facing the estuary has a concentration of port infrastructure built to support the expansion of the empire and working class dominated boroughs. On the other hand, west London is dominated by a more affluent population. The more bourgeois neighbourhoods are built on estates often owned by   aristocratic heirs. Further west are horseracing courses (Ascott) and rural cottages for well off Londoners aspiring to live in a preserved rural landscape. This East/West opposition is also a political divide .

The government try to structure the growth of the South-East with a “growth points” policy. Towns such as Didcot (see Zoom n°1), located beyond the green belt  are to absorb the demographic growth of the megapolis. An estimated 14 000 houses are needed to meet the needs of newcomers for south-Oxfordshire alone (excluding Oxford) for the period 2015-2030. This growth is transforming the landscape : expanding train stations such as Didcot Parkway, expanded in 2015 or Oxford Parkway opened in 2016. Motorway Interchanges are expanded as well (near Didcot, north Oxford)

These new transport infrastructure comes with typical suburban newly urbanised suburban areas: large estates of individual houses sprawl in the outskirts of towns and eat up rich agricultural land. Cars are dominant and impose their metrics to the new developments. These standardized surburban landscapes contrast sharply with those of the neighbouring villages so far reasonably well preserved.

This spatial segregation reflects a growing social segregation. Villages tend to have a concentration of middle class to upper-middle class who can afford old cottages subject to stringent regulations aimed at preserving their character. The lower-middle-class and working class will tend to head to newer estates, more affordable but also more common (Didcot, Abingdon). The area is very densely populated with many valuable landscapes. This leads inevitably to strong opposition between actors regarding the choices to be made for future infrastructure. The NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) syndrome is visible in the opposition to future developments in Harwell or Culham (projected 3500 houses development on prime agricultural land).

Reinforcing a world class cluster of innovation and knowledge economy :

During the 1980’s and 90’s, the British economy changed radically. Facing the decline of its traditional manufacturing industries and the loss of the Empire, the country decided to specialize its economy towards the service sector, in the 1990’s towards a knowledge-intensive economy. This new direction had an important geographic dimension as it favoured the South-East, London and the “knowledge-hubs” in its orbit attracting the high-tech industries. The M4 corridor heading west from London all the way to Bristol, is a perfect example. Along this highway, major TNCs have located their European HQ and research facilities. They were attracted by the free-market friendly policy of the various governments since the 1980’s repositioning the UK as a gateway to Europe for north-American and Asian TNCs.

In this changing context, Oxford and its region are in a very strong position. They are now emerging as a new cluster of innovation and knowledge. They have many assets.

First comes the University of Oxford. It was created in the Middle-Ages making it one of the oldest European universities. It is home to 24 000 students and many world class research laboratories. It is ranked among the top world universities. It offers a unique working environment for both students and academics. The centre of the city has been preserved with a wide range of historic buildings all linked to the university and the myths it helped to create. Alice in Wonderland, J.P.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter all seem to come to life in its streets... and they contribute to a very dynamic tourism industry partly based on linguistic and school trips.

The University of Oxford has total financial independence. Its assets are valued at £ 9 billion, including an estimated 55 000 hectares of land, although colleges are very shy when it comes to revealing the extent of their assets. With an annual budget of £ 2.45 million , the university invests in order to keep its rank in the highly competitive world of global universities.

With such financial wealth, Oxford is able to acquire cutting edge research equipment and laboratories but also to build science centres for start-ups linked to the university’s research labs : Begbroke park is visible on the top north of the image. Oxford Science Park is located in the south of the City. It belonged to and is managed by Magdalen college.

The region of Oxford is also home to major scientific instruments built in the past 50 years. They were built without a specific plan. Acquiring land in that area for such projects is difficult and expensive. There are also various environmental restrictions (green belt of Oxford, Chiltern Area of Outstanding National Beauty). That may help explain why the choice was made to use decommissioned RAF air fields offering vast unbuilt areas. They are however quite isolated from one another making connections with local communities an issue.

Three science parks of prime importance

Harwell Campus comes first chronologically and in importance. It was built in 1945 and became the main research facility for physics and atom in the country. Two of the most important instruments for fundamental research in the country and indeed of world importance are located her : ISIS neutron source, part of the Rutherford Laboratory set-up in 1957 and the synchrotron Diamond Light source (operating since 2007). These instruments constitute the heart of an innovation hub comprising more than 140 companies, both public (Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Medical Research Council, the European Space Agency) and private. It is divided into three clusters : space tech, health tech and energy tech, all developing industrial applications made possible by these major instruments.

Harwell is competing as well as cooperating with other synchrotrons in Europe and in the world. As a result, there is a constant flow of highly qualified researchers and technicians coming and going (e.g : from Grenoble) attracted by the prospect of better salaries and the amenities of the area. 6000 people work on Harwell Campus. Land has been set aside (visible on the image) to allow for the projected expansion.

Culham Science centre was also built on a decommissioned RAF airfield. It started as an extension of Harwell focusing on nuclear fusion. It grew rapidly after the UK entered the EEC (1973) and won the bid (1977) to host the Joint European Torus, the European program for nuclear fusion set up under the Euratom treaty.

It also lead to the creation by the European Commission of the European school Culham designed for children of seconded workers at Culham Science Centre. This school has attracted the numerous international families of the area and reinforced the specialization of the area in the knowledge economy. JET has now been terminated was (replaced by ITER in Provence). The EU therefore pulled out of Culham in 2016. However Culham Science Centre keeps its research instruments and now diversifies. 2000 people work on site with a large potential for growth. It is forecast to double in size in the coming years.

Finally, Milton Park is a composite business park and was set up on a former military depot. It focuses on bio-medical industries and new technologies. 6500 people work there, making it one of the largest business parks in Europe.
These three science parks have joined forces and set-up “Science Vale” UK. It aims at attracting investments and developing infrastructure in order to keep up with the forecast economic growth of the area (16 000 jobs for the 2015-2030 period ).

Conflicting scales, conflicting actors in the Oxford countryside

The Oxford area has benefited from the great change of direction of economic policy initiated in the 1980’s and supported by European integration : the research centres of the South East made the most of the single market and its four freedoms and attracted highly qualified workers from all over Europe. Oxfordshire is home for 40000 European citizens and a large part of them work in universities, science and new tech. The University of Oxford comes 1st for the amount of funds distributed by the EU (Horizon 2020). The choices made after the Brexit referendum may very well lead to an updating of this model.

However in the global competition of innovation clusters, Oxford and its region suffer from a lack of cooperation between its different parts. For a long time the university of Oxford was more interested in keeping the rural character of the area, its landscapes and its green belt. The university has not sought until fairly recently to encourage a development of the industry or to cooperate with the major scientific centers of the area. All these different players have so far gone their own way with little coordination.

A planning policy combining the local, national and global scales ?

This image is a good example of how an innovation cluster tries to take advantage of the development opportunities while minimizing the conflicting views of players operating at a local, national or global scale.

The 1st challenge will be to put an end to the housing deficit the area has been suffering from. Due to the demographic growth caused by the proximity of London and the local economic growth Oxfordshire will see a 21.4% demographic growth generating a need for 57 000 new houses for the 2010-2030 period.

This scramble for new houses risks transforming conserved rural landscapes that are the very identity of the area .The authorities have so far favoured a “soft growth” approach consisting in concentrating the growth around Didcot and of multiple small developments on the edge of the villages. This has lead nonetheless to growing discontent among the local population while choking the undersized local roads at peak time.

The 2nd challenge is to build a coherent innovation cluster where industries, research centers and universities would all work together. The British government is trying to develop a policy limiting the never-ending sprawl of the London megapolis. The project branded “knowledge spine” aims at creating an “innovation arc”. Oxford would be the southern tip. With it going through Milton Keynes, Cambridge being its eastern end. It plans to “unlock the potential for growth” of the area by stimulating cooperation between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the numerous research centers and industries. The Arc would then be less dependant on London. Plans to improve the almost nonexistent East-West connectivity of the arc are under way. The Oxford-Cambridge train journey is 3h30mn long at the moment... via London !

The final objective is to make this East-West arc mentioned above more independent from London. Whtether this this policy prove to last or will it just be another geomarketing enterprise remains to be seen. British planning policies have a long history of short-lived projects ! Will a true cooperation between Oxford and “the other place” really come to light ?

Detailed images

Didcot : at the crossroads of the commuter belt and of an innovation and knowledge hub

Image with geographical landmarks

Didcot is a good example of the transformations south-eastern England has undergone since 1945. Didcot was a small rural settlement and it started to expand with the construction of the railway. Its position was strategic. The railway lines coming from the Midlands (to the North) and Wales (to the West) met there on their way to London. Didcot then started to acquire a central role in the regional transport system overtaking the old market town of Abingdon. This strategic position was reinforced in 1964 when a power station was built to meet the growing demand of London. The direct rail link with Welsh coal proved very convenient. The connectivity of Didcot was further improved when the old road linking the south coast to Oxford and the Midlands expanded into a dual carriageway.

Didcot expanded around these major forms of infrastructure. Housing estates were built, first to accommodate railway workers, later for the power station workers. They are a very good example of post 1945 English society : individual houses with cars a central feature, resulting in horizontal urban landscapes. Didcot is today in the orbit of London :commuters are attracted by a more reasonable market price, good connections to London Paddington (45 mn) and Heathrow airport. They decide to relocate their family here. Didcot Parkway station was expanded in 2015 to accommodate these commuters and has now a large amount of  parking, a very common feature of towns in the periphery of a large megapolis. It now carries a traffic of 3 Million passengers/year. The interchange has also recently been expanded. 

The authorities have labelled Didcot a “growth point” one of a number of towns located around Greater London.  They will have to absorb the forecast 76% demographic growth of the capital for the period 2010-2026. In this perspective, Didcot is already changing. The industrial infrastructure is closing down : the electric power station stopped its operations in 2014 and is being dismantled. The train depot has been transformed into a museum.

The suburban way of life, based on individual houses and the dominance of cars, has driven the growth of Didcot. Two different generations of estates are visible : the older ones (2nd part of the XXth century) were built next to the major infrastructure (train depot and power station). They reflect a society still influenced by the class system. The subtle arrangement of streets means that people living in streets of semi-detached and terraced houses (aimed at the working class) will have minimum interaction with those detached houses built for the middle class.

South of Didcot, Harwell Science center is clearly visible with its rounded-shaped synchrotron. Land has been set aside in order to allow for a future expansion. The nearby village of Harwell is a good example of the demographic growth of the area: new estates along with their usual road infrastructure are eating up agricultural land and create a standardized suburban landscape.

Oxford : the image of the ideal university town

Amage with geographical landmarks

The city of Oxford’s original settlement is located at the confluence of the river Thames and the river Cherwell, a historic strategic crossing position. The fortification still visible besides the castle date back to the Anglo-Saxons.

The University of Oxford (going back to 1096) owns most of the land and thus is able to shape the city according to its needs. The center of the city is essentially made of the 38 colleges, built as the university grew, without any clear master plan.

The image reveals the importance of the space used by the colleges : each one has its own building, with its quandrangle(s), chapel (a reminder of the religious origins of the university), library. The largest ones (Christchurch or Magdalen) have a large park and their own sports facilities. Around the colleges are the university landmark buildings : the Bodleian library, the cathedral, the Ashmolean museum where the treasures collected by the university in its long history are showcased. This leaves very little scope for public spaces. The colleges operate as closed spaces. The city of Oxford is a theatre but the 7 million annual tourists are not allowed backstage.

The northern part of the city is an extension of the university, mainly used for new research facilities. To the West are the university hospital of Headington and Oxford Brookes (formerly Oxford polytechnic) with its 18 000 students. The University’s main sports facilities are located on the flood plain. Iffley sports track, where Roger Bannister broke the world record of the Mile in 1954, is an example.

The rest of the city lies further away ,across the train tracks and the circular road. Oxford is made of two parts (university and ... the rest), separated by the flood plain of the Cherwell and the Thames. On the South-Eastern edge of the city is the historic “mini-car plant”. It now belongs to BMW and employs 4000 workers. Around the plant, the urban structure is a very typical British working class landscape. It is kept at good distance from the university across the flood plain.

Oxford now has a population of 166 000 inhabitants but is limited in its geographic expansion by the green belt. This has prevented any urban sprawl and preserved the particular identity of the city. It has caused however a tension in the housing market. Oxford cannot be considered a world city with all the urban functions attached such as infrastructure, economic functions. But Oxford plays a major role as a global university town.

Blenheim palace, a symbol of the wealth and power of the English aristocracy

Image with geographical landmarks

Blenheim palace is at the center of a 850 hectares estate, with its beautiful and varied gardens : an Italian garden inspired by the Villa d’Este, a park inspired by Le Nôtre, gardener of the Versailles gardens later modified by “capability” Brown to the taste of the late XVIII° century. With these gardens, the Malborough family wanted to put the palace on the map of the great European palaces. It was built in 1705 on land gifted by the king to the duke of Malborough after his victory over the armies of Louis XIV. It was later the birth place of Winston Churchill.

Blenheim palace and its estates still belong to the Malborough family. This illustrates the ability of the aristocracy to adapt itself to a changing society. It has been turned into a successful venture diversifying its activities in order to expand the family’s assets : the real Estate branch of the company builds new houses on the estate (Woodstock). The agricultural branch has turned organic...while benefiting from the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU (£ 823,000 in 2016). The palace itself, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, welcomes 900 000 visitors per year.

Blenheim palace exemplifies the persistent power and influence of the English aristocracy. The duke of Malborough is one of the 31 Lords temporal (hereditary members of the house of lords). The aristocracy, as Blenheim palace demonstrates, can still count on a large ground rent thanks to the unique leasehold system (18% of the houses, 4 M in the country). The owner of the land may be different from the one owning the building... who must return the land (and the building) when the lease- hold comes to end. The aristocracy still owns 30% of the land in England(the duke of Westminster and the royal family own a large part of Western London). An important part of their wealth .

Additional image

Oxford in its regional setting west of Greater London.

Further resources

Sur le site Géoimage du CNES
Julien Meynet et Elodie Gruit : Royaume-Uni – Londres Centre : une capitale et une ville mondiale en profondes mutations urbaines.

Sources utiles :
Pôle d’innovation et de la connaissance :
Harwell science park
L’arc de la connaissance Oxford-Cambridge
Valler, Phelps, Miao, Benneworth, Eckardt, Franziska, (2019/01/29), Science Spaces as ‘Ethnoscapes’: Identity, Perception and the Production of Locality, Urban Science, vol 3,
Guardian : Oxford firm to screen 15,000 drugs in search for coronavirus cure :

Richesse foncière de la noblesse :
Dossier du magazine Country Life(2010)
How the aristocracy preserved their power ; article du Guardian

Oxford :
Emissions de France culture : Oxford Ville monde :
lien 1 / lien 2
Richesse foncière de l‘université d’Oxford : Blog Who owns England ?


Nicolas Bounet, professeur agrégé de géographie, lycée Théophile Gautier, Tarbes.


Translated by Nicolas Bounet, Lycée Théophile Gautier, Tarbes
Reviewed by John Little, European school, Varese, Italy
Former geography teachers at European School , Culham, UK

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