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Round and round the garden

Round and round the garden

Yesterday (15 August), the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published a new prospectus for funding to support the development of so-called ‘garden communities’ – based on an idea first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in the late 19th century.

The prospectus is not, in itself, a bad thing. In fact, it must be said, it is a very good thing for government to offer support to resource-strapped local planning authorities who want to take innovative approaches to meet their housing and other development needs.

The criteria that must be met by these projects are laudable and, it might reasonably be argued, are fundamental criteria upon which all development proposals should be assessed.

In particular, from CPRE’s point of view, we’re delighted to see mention of ‘development on predominantly brownfield sites’ and ‘transformational development of an existing settlement’.

That said, there is no indication that brownfield or regeneration projects will be prioritised, and bizarrely, it appears that regeneration projects will have to jump through more hoops in terms of highlighting ‘transformational outcomes’ (whatever that means) than greenfield development.

What is noticeably missing from the prospectus is any reference to ‘making effective use of land’, reflecting the new section 11 of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which requires councils to make ‘as much use as possible’ of brownfield sites (although it did sadly stop short of compelling councils to reject proposals that do not). This omission is highly disappointing, for two reasons.  

Firstly, it’s one of the most progressive parts of the new NPPF, and seems to have been inserted as a direct response to the aimless squandering of our limited supply of land since the 2012 NPPF, as highlighted by our research in June this year.

Secondly, Ebenezer Howard’s original vision for garden cities was of sustainable, walkable communities that used land well – what Create Streets call ‘gentle density’ – and most definitely not suburban sprawl.

Howard proposed that garden cities should be communities of 30,000 people on a site of 1,000 acres (around 400 ha). This population would be sufficient to support a good range of public services and the size means that no home needs to be much more than 500 metres from the town centre – creating an eminently walkable urban environment. In Letchworth (population 33,600) it’s now more than three times that distance.

Howard’s vision was of settlements with a net density of more than 40 homes per hectare (higher than most of Letchworth, and almost double that of so-called garden villages of today). But as household sizes in 1900 were double what they are today, you need 80 homes per hectare to achieve Howard’s vision.

But the government’s garden communities prospectus makes no mention of density or effective use of land as a criteria to assess proposals seeking government support – beyond belief for a document promoting a form of development so closely linked to the density and walkability of the communities they seek to design.  

Which brings me on to the question of why the word ‘garden’ is being used at all.

The motivation for this is finding a description of new development that people perceive to be warm, cuddly and environmentally responsible. Clearly ‘garden community’ achieves this better than ‘new town’ or ‘estate regeneration’.

However, every time we see a proposal for a ‘garden community’, we should challenge what it is that is being proposed, and ask whether someone reading Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden cities of to-morrow’ would recognise it.

The only authoritative description of what a garden city should be are the ‘principles’, referenced in the prospectus and published by the Town and Country Planning Association, the daughter of the Garden Cities Association that Howard founded in 1899.

TCPA’s principles are all very well, but I’m not personally convinced that they represent what was unique about Howard’s vision. Things have changed since 1898 – few people today would expect cities to be connected by canals, for example – so you would expect some of Howard’s ideas to be updated.

Howard would certainly recognise the emphasis in the TCPA’s principles on land reform - ‘land value capture for the benefit of the community’ - and community estate management ‘community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets’.  He would also support the range of other aspirations for what we would now call ‘sustainable development’ – otherwise known as ‘good planning’.

However, Howard would be deeply disappointed with the complete lack of reference to what he called ‘the correct principle of a city’s growth’ and the concept of ‘social cities’, and the wilful misinterpretation of ‘the marriage of town and country’ - to say nothing of the fundamental principle of 30,000 people in a 1,000-acre city.

He might also question the emphasis on ‘homes with gardens’, which is the single most problematic issue with the TCPA principles.  It is often held (incorrectly) that Garden Cities were so-named because they comprised homes with gardens.

As a schoolchild in Letchworth, I was always taught that the name actually arose from the idea of the city being set within a permanent and productive rural belt, much as a fine home sits in and benefits from its own garden.

And yet, the idea of ‘homes with gardens’ is the element that has been most influential on the development of land-hungry, low-density suburban sprawl, from early 20th century ‘Metroland’ schemes to today’s bland housing estates.

Even if ‘homes with gardens’ was central to Howard’s vision (and it wasn’t), this should be one of those ideas that joins temperance and cities connected by canals as principles that aren’t fit for purpose in the 21st century.

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