Garden cities & movement: achieving 'good growth'

Garden cities & movement: achieving 'good growth'

By Keith Mitchell, Chairman

The Creating Garden Communities series began with my colleague Tim Allen suggesting we should be re-evaluating the basic tenets of the garden city movement to ensure that the new raft of garden city development now being pursued stands the test of time.

Tim’s essential concern was that, if the original garden city movement had been established to address the perceived concerns about housing around 100 years ago, surely we should be basing our current plans around the issues that are relevant to today’s challenges? His challenge was for us to consider the issues of economic affordability, movement, culture, health and utility as being some of the relevant issues to be considered, but of course there is much overlap, as well as other matters that demand attention. Here we consider these issues from a movement perspective, although as you will soon see, it’s not as simple as that!

It is already becoming a hackneyed phrase, but I quite like the idea of ‘good growth’. It suggests that we are allowed to be ambitious about growth, but want the product of our imagination and effort to be ‘good’ – presumably in economic, environmental and social terms – in balance. This phrase also chimes with what I see many of our developer clients looking to achieve – not only do they see this as providing a social good – but they see this as a strategy which leads to long term value (and return) for them.

Research currently being undertaken by the Foundation for Integrated Transport (Transport for New Homes) has been looking at the relationship between the level of car dependency of sub-urban or rural housing development, (where most garden city development will be), and the quality of the resultant community. Emerging conclusions suggest that future outcomes such as levels of employment, provision of local facilities and amenities, and the quality of community cohesion are detrimentally affected if the default means of travel is the car – i.e. not good growth.

The trouble is that this debate has not really moved on since the launch of PPG13:Transport in 1994 where progress started to be made, but was a victim of the NPPF cull in 2012. Even though we have been through changes in policy and guidance over the years, the essential process of assessing the movement implications of development haven’t fundamentally changed. Whilst we do now see the assessment of non-car modes being considered before the assessment of traffic impact, housing projects are still asked to assess a future world in which traffic growth continues inexorably, and that developers are pushed to agree to mitigation proposals that take account of the worst congestion case by decision makers influenced by public opinion that is (rightly) concerned about the impacts of car use – and who see better provision for cars as the answer.

Paradoxically however, the answer does not lie in more and better provision for cars. The answer lies in better provision for the movement needs of the community that is going to be living in the new housing – not measured in terms of highway capacity – but in terms of access to employment, education and other amenities – as well as issues such as road safety, health and wellbeing which are fast rising up the agenda.

Our future planning also needs to take into account what is actually happening to patterns of movement on the ground. As has recently been highlighted by the Independent Transport Commission in its research into Travel Trends (and reported in our All Change publication) the growth in travel by car has become disconnected from economic growth (so called ‘peak car’ has been reached). We are still seeing some growth overall as a result of a growing population, and changes in some demographics and the ‘Amazon’ factor. Most interestingly however is the substantial reduction in car use amongst young men (and to a lesser extent – young women) between 17 and 34 – 47% less!

We can all have a guess as to why this is, and most of us would identify increasing use of technology, opportunity cost of motoring, availability of alternatives, the growth of the sharing economy, and increasing urbanisation as key factors. It raises some interesting questions – such as – will this cohort of young people retain their patterns of movement as they get older – and will the next cohort have even more pronounced moves away from private car use as technology and Mobility as a Service begin to take off? How do we plan for a future when we don’t know what it’s going to look like – and why do we insist on planning for the worst case when planning for the future?

What would happen if we planned for the best case? Professor Peter Jones OBE of University College London has expressed his view that we need to ‘turn transport planning on its head’ – to move away from the modified ‘predict and provide’ methodology in common use now, towards a process of ‘vision and validate’ – to move away from forecasting in an uncertain future towards backcasting to provide greater certainty of reaching a future we actually want to deliver.

I have blogged before that I agree with this. However, this needs to be accompanied by an appreciation that we need a multi-faceted approach. For example, if you ask a local resident if they want a future housing scheme to accommodate increasing car use, you are very likely to get a positive reply. If you ask a resident what is more important – protecting future car use, or clear air to breathe, or safe roads for their children, or having a local shop – you may get quite a different answer. Of course – these choices are not binary – but we have to see transport as part of delivering ‘good growth’ and not as one single issue which is disconnected from everything else.

This is not some theoretical issue which we can spend time debating, reviewing and reworking. Time is of the essence. We are now working to deliver vast quantities of housing – in middle England – in urban extensions and garden settlements – where the temptation is continue planning for the worst case, rather than the best case. This needs to change if we are to find better ways of delivering better communities. The Garden Settlement movement should be leading the movement movement.