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Garden cities: redefining the principles for modern times

May 14, 2017

By Tim Allen

Bearing on the original garden city principles, how can we adapt them to the 21st century

If the much touted new garden cities, towns and villages are to be considered as successful as the originals at Letchworth and Welwyn, then perhaps we need ensure that in a few decades’ time it is clear that they have stood the test of time, and delivered on the promises that we set for them. They will need to effectively deal with the problems and challenges of the day, create places where people can live, and want to live, and remain models of what can be achieved.

It is clear, therefore, that a new set of principles needs to be developed to define what the 21st century garden settlements are about—and that they should be built for today, and not reference a past that isn’t where we live.

This first blog piece in our Creating Garden Communities series sets the scene for us to explore what these principles might be, how they could be developed and how we create a workable framework to deliver Garden Settlements that subscribe absolutely to Howard’s ethos—namely that they provide a complete and wholesome place to live, by striking out on a “road to peaceful reform” of the way we build communities and society.

It must be acknowledged that the core issue around these new settlements centres around land ownership and the vagaries of “value capture.” In simple terms, how do you manage to acquire land at a cost that is low enough for you to then catch and re-direct the value created by development into supporting the local community.

From the very beginning of the Garden City movement it is fair to say that Ebenezer Howard didn’t really solve this problem either. In “Garden Cities of To-morrow” Howard sets out the reality that if Garden Cities are to be successful, and go beyond his experimental settlements at Letchworth and Welwyn then he considers Government will need to be involved. He recognises that landowners typically want to profit from their land, and, although he was able to acquire land at agricultural values this was essentially because his true intent was hidden from the vendors.

He operated in a world that before the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act—the legislation that created the modern world of planning that we understand today. The Act meant that, for the first time, planning permission was required for development, and owners could no longer do as they pleased with their assets. Along with this came the requirement for a development plan to be prepared—and so “hope value” became a concept for landowners to embrace if the planning authority were to smile on their particular corner of the country.

In fact, the late Forties and early Fifties did deliver a system that may well have been more conducive to the development of Garden Settlements and the like, as land values were managed centrally. The post-war need to re-build the country meant that there was support for local authorities to gain land related powers beyond the approval of planning permissions. They could be developers in their own right, or use compulsory purchase to buy land and then lease it to developers to ensure that development took place.

The Act established the situation that development values were vested in the state, and a £300m fund was available to compensate landowners where development was earmarked. Hence, land could be purchased at existing use value and once permission was granted the "Development Charge" was levied by District Valuers based on the difference between the initial price and the final value of the land.

But over the decades of relative prosperity that followed, this centralised approach diminished, and a much more open market system of dealing with land developed, to culminate in the system we see today.

As a result, the principles of hope value and the general knowledge that land is valuable to those that hold it remains a fundamental challenge for the Garden Settlements.

The way things work at Letchworth, with Howard having ploughed back what we would today call “developers profit” into community trusts and direct benefits, is a fantastic model, but must be considered unrealistic today. It is naïve to base an entire National strategy around Victorian altruism or compulsory purchase.

How do the new garden settlements seek to resolve this issue?

Perhaps we need to take a more philosophical leaf out of Howard’s book. He was, after all, a visionary pragmatist. Re-reading “Garden Cities of To-morrow” in a more critical light is enlightening. At face value Howard talks about green spaces, and allotments. He talks about industrial zones, and homes for the blind and orphaned children. It can start to read like a socialist utopia rather than a study of urban or community planning.

But consider beyond face value, and Howard’s real drive becomes clearer—he wanted to solve the problems of the day. He talks about the urban poor, and how they live in appalling and unsanitary conditions, but he also talks about the rural destitute, reliant on seasonal work and subject to the vagaries of bad weather and a bad harvest. Howard identifies both as needing a place to live, that makes provision for the sort of lifetime health and food security that people at the time needed.

How does this translate to the early 21st century?

If we can start to identify the critical social challenges of our society and solve them, then maybe we will be invoking the spirit of Howards “visionary pragmatism”.

What is it that prevents people leading the lives that they want to lead today? The societal challenges we face are different to those Howard observed, and can perhaps be encapsulated under four broad headings:

  • Economic affordability – the ability of society as whole to live and work in a sustainable way—meaning having a mix of land uses with communities in them that are complete and fully functioning. This is about someone’s ability to buy or rent a property close to where they have their livelihood (whether this is work-based or not), and also about the opportunity for businesses to locate in places where there is a vibrant employment economy and easy access to market for their products.
  • Movement – our ability to meet and manage the demand for travel, so that there is choice, but also social responsibility in allocating resources to movement. There is a need to make necessary travel available, reliable and affordable (for example for health and education purposes which benefit society), but it also needs to recognise that there may be more sustainable ways of managing this—digital connectivity that removes the need to travel, differential costs to reflect the impacts of movement, in a holistic context.
  • Culture – ensuring that education, art, sport, heritage and leisure pursuits are available and can be grow, develop and remain relevant, as these are the cornerstones of civilisation.
  • Health & utility – maintaining the health and wellbeing of society as a whole, and for the individual through the provision of appropriate facilities for care, education and access to knowledge.

Addressing these issues, directly targeted at those within society who don’t have the resources to do so would seem to be closest to Howard’s principles. But this all needs to take place in a fundamentally different context to the one that Howard addressed. His was a philanthropic approach to help those who could not help themselves—they were typically uneducated, and may well have had little appreciation of what life could have been. Howard was a crusader for those who didn’t know what they were missing.

The task we face is very different—we are challenged by a society that is uniquely and comprehensively aware of what is going on around it. People in the UK are well educated, have access to information technology on an almost universal basis, and are able to dream and aspire to a lifestyle with a sophistication and level of fulfilment that was most likely unimaginable to Howard. All of this is positive, and must be considered progress and an improving social picture.

But, for the Garden Settlements it means a radically different approach is needed to develop a set of core principles that address the challenges set out above. Making housing affordable for the entire cross-section of society is an absolute necessity for any such settlement. There must be places for key workers, manual workers, the elderly, the young, those who are wealthy and those who are not, those who are capable and those who are not. Perhaps instead of being tenure blind the settlements will be “tenure celebratory”—providing a level of quality across every type of housing.

Transport networks may well need to be developed that are holistic, and potentially based on societal need rather than wealth. The human need to explore means that movement will always be both a need and a want. This means that it may well also be under capacity pressures in a modern society. The Garden Settlement may need to manage this to ensure that needs are prioritised over whims and desires to explore. Achieving a balance around a sensible equilibrium of provision will be important for the Garden Settlements.

Culture is the hallmark of a civilised and stable society. The opportunity to improve oneself, learn new things and experience the world in a different way through the arts needs necessarily to be at the heart of any community. The Garden Settlements must address this directly, alongside the quality of their environments, and must be able to deliver equity of access to these opportunities, without undue cost or favour.

And they must, of course, be the healthiest places to live, with thought having gone into not only physical health, with places to exercise and play, but also to address mental health issues around stress, aging and dealing with those who want or need to live a different lifestyle to the norm.

Perhaps the 21st century Garden Settlement needs to be less hung up on how the land is acquired or held, and how the proportion of green space is made up, and whether there are community trusts or whether everyone has an allotment. Perhaps it would be better to consider more carefully want we are seeking to achieve, what problems we want to address, and then use the absolute best of 21st century technology and resources to develop the solutions to them.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Tim Allen

    Focusing mostly on urban regeneration and development projects, Tim applies his project management expertise to every project. He’s also completed civil engineering and ecological work including flood risk assessments and geotechnical studies.

    Contact Tim
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