Garden cities: do they have a future?

Garden cities: do they have a future?

By Tim Allen, Partner

The Garden Settlement movement remains on the tip of the tongues of anyone involved in trying to meet the Governments growth agenda – especially in respect of housing. There is now a heady number of City, Town and Village proposals around the country – all vying to be seen as both innovative and different in their approach to solving the problem.

But the context is a bit mixed.

A good number of these proposals were put forward by local councils as part of funding bids to be part of the first wave of new Garden Villages. Government chose ones that, for the most part, were already in Local Plans in one form or another, leaving a long list of schemes high and dry. In the case of some chosen proposals, Councils then backed away from the idea, and landowners were left to decide whether to press on regardless or abandon the plan.

In an added twist of the knife, some schemes were in Green Belt areas, leaving the argument open about whether attracting some Government funding would have been a “Very Special Circumstance”.

Meanwhile, public opinion in many places seems to have moved quite decisively against the larger scale developments that Urban Extensions and Garden Settlements represent.

All of this means that the purity of Howard’s original vision, that the Garden City Movement would resolve fundamental social and community problems for both city and country dwellers, is lost. The reputation of the Garden Settlement as a mechanism for delivering much needed growth in a sustainable and attractive way, with a long-term legacy that would endear it to the local and wider community, is, arguably, being damaged.

Irrespective of whether the NPPF ends up supporting Garden City principles or not, the fact remains that the concept is at something of a crossroads. It would be easy to stop at this point, and conclude negatively that the whole idea has become so watered down that it is at risk of becoming a brand that promoters simply hang their schemes onto, whatever they are.

But we are more optimistic than this. We think that some of the schemes that don’t really meet the principles will fall away. Those that are left will likely align more closely with the Garden City principles, and be promoted by people who are able and willing to move the game on.

These schemes will become exemplars for the future, with some of them including the sort of creative thinking that will be required to achieve the capture of value uplift for the good of the long-term community – including residents, businesses and even landowners. Community land trusts are becoming more commonly discussed, and so is creative ways to embed Mobility as a Service and truly demand-responsive, multi-modal transport networks.

So what does this mean for the Garden City movement?

After some careful thought, we think there is even greater scope for a “call to arms” for those who are able to commit to incorporating some, or all, of the Garden City principles into their proposals. There is a need for the industry to come together and applaud each and every effort to implement these important parameters.

Maybe there is merit in the various promoters electing to come together – to get behind the idea of a movement in a more joined up way. This could mean some hard conversations about the way that the market responds to change, and the pace with which principles could become the norm. But that debate now needs to be had – we need the right people, in the right place, with a genuine spirit of collaboration if the Garden Settlement ideal is to be realised up and down the country.

And we will need to be clear about the principles that we think apply to our 21st century garden settlements. From our work to date, we think these should be around:

  • A practical way to achieve a balance between land owner value and the funding of social and infrastructure assets for the long term
  • Embedding adaptable and resilient approaches to transport and energy, that can adapt to future change and create long-term revenue streams for everyone’s benefit
  • Emphasis on a community where daily life can be accomplished locally – so housing, employment, retail, education and cultural opportunities are all considered in terms of their accessibility. They might not necessarily be on site – but they are available enough to create an active and prosperous economy
  • An approach to design which supports healthy lifestyles and strong communities, encourages walking and cycling, participation, leisure activity and cultural opportunities
  • Creating a sense of place and community in which the future community has a sense of engagement in its conduct and operation.
  • Doesn’t have to be green or low density housing with gardens and allotments!

These principles need to be applied with pragmatism, and through a culture of sharing and iterating design ideas to balance the emphasis required by the different elements of them. We see such an approach as being good for both the promoters of development and the future communities that will be living and working there.

The industry probably needs to respond to this aspiration itself. It would be difficult for Government to achieve this from the top down. But if those of us involved can drive it, it would be to the benefit of improving the quality and value of development, as well as creating some great examples of getting it all right, all in one place.

Tim Allen

Tim Allen

Director - Land Development Midlands

  • Birmingham
  • 07771 820732