Academic Director’s Blog April-August 2020

Hello!  Today’s blog from me at the International Garden Cities Institute in Letchworth Garden City covers rather longer period than usual – stretching from April to August 2020. As would be quite hard to miss, we have all been experiencing the effects of the very unusual external circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example I am writing this blog not as I usually would from my desk at the Institute but from home – like millions of others in the United Kingdom and internationally the centre of my world has shifted to much more revolve around where I live. And for me, that puts into sharp relief the principles that Ebenezer Howard set out for making living and working conditions and places as healthy and socially responsive as possible.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to explore some of these health-related aspects of garden cities in a recent article I wrote for the Town and Country Planning Association journal to mark the centenary of Welwyn Garden City. In Food and Welwyn Garden City: Prescribing a Sociable Future (TCPA Journal 89, Aug 2020 edition) I drew links between different health-related aspects of garden city shaping – showing that a healthy food system was a part of a wider focus on the sociability of the place and this was very much a spatial affair in the garden city with plenty of space and air very much in evidence. I suggested that we might view Ebenezer Howard as our first ‘social prescriber’ with his integrated, holistic prescription for a healthy and fulfilling life in the garden city.

Of course these issues are very much on all our agendas today in mid 2020 as we seek to flexibly adapt our urban spaces to the needs for (and opportunities opened up by) working from home, social distancing and ease of movement by bicycle and on foot in places now recentred on a much more local life. The fascinating and rapid moves towards ‘the 15-minute city’ where daily essentials can be accessed within a 15-minute walking and cycling radius, the advent of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in many places, and the establishment of much more comprehensive, dedicated cycle infrastructure all seem to me signs of convergence with garden city principles.

Although many of us have been working from home, some results of recent research based on studying garden cities in situ have been launched during the lockdown period. In July, for example, a very interesting and important piece of research was published by the advocacy group, Transport for New Homes. My colleagues from the Smart Mobility Unit at the University of Hertfordshire discussed the work at an excellent seminar in which the results of research into the new round of garden communities being developed in the United Kingdom was evaluated in terms of its sustainable accessibility – and I am afraid in a number of cases was found wanting in key respects. The main issue found was that settlements were tending to lock in car dependency through their planning and design arrangements. As the authors note in their introduction to their research repor 

“This document is written for the non-specialist without knowledge of the planning system, but with an interest in new homes and how and where we are building them. It concentrates on the new ‘garden communities’ that are envisaged by government as offering a solution different from the usual car-based dormitory estates that we are so used to seeing. Our conclusion from our visits and research, is that there is an enormous gap between the garden community visions presented by government, consultants and local councils, and the developments likely to be built in reality. The problem centres we think, on building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport. The two problems are of course, interrelated.”

The Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions And Reality (Transport for New Homes, 2020: page 6) authors looked in detail at 20 new garden communities around the country from Lancaster in the North to Devon and Kent in the South, as well as a further twelve or so new communities in less detail. They found that these places were unlikely to be self-sufficient, instead tending to be car dependent, generating more traffic on main roads and requiring a massive investment in road capacity including new or enlarged motorway junctions (ibid, 2020: page 10). In some cases they were located to help fund a new bypass road (ibid, 2020: page 10). At the same time they found that public transport was very popular but underfunded, rail services were too far away and too infrequent, cycling was underfunded, placemaking did not focus enough on making walking easy and pleasant, and front gardens were reduced in size in order to give space to cars (ibid, 2020: page 10).

On the basis of these findings, Transport for New Homes makes a number of sensible suggestions about what might be done about these interrelated problems of building in the wrong locations around the wrong kind of transport. The authors suggest the following actions. The first point is about the need to develop new communities in the right locations that will work in public transport terms, with project management to deliver what is intended (Transport for New Homes, 2020: page 30). They argue for early specification of sustainable transport in detail at planning stage and a focus on self-containment and establishing local amenities early on in the planning (ibid, 2020: page 30). The authors suggest that ‘There needs to be a mechanism to enable sustainable transport infrastructure to be constructed beyond the development boundary of the garden village or new part of the garden town’ so that the place works within its transport context (ibid, 2020: page 30).

The need to sort out what kind of transport infrastructure makes sense to support new garden communities is in part about the requirement for new metrics to work out what to do based on good evidence. The report authors argue that ‘transport assessments need modernising – they shouldn’t be mostly about road capacity and traffic jams.’ (ibid, 2020: page 30). Infrastructure funding should reflect more sustainable perspectives on new community settlements. Rather than being overweighted towards road development as is the situation now, the bulk of funds should go to building new public transport capacity (op cit, 2020, page 31). This would include speeding up delivery of new stations and local rail services and financial support for building into the new towns and villages streets that work for active travel by walking and cycling (op cit, 2020, page 31).

As well as identifying some critical issues that need attention in the way such new communities are designed and built, one of the good things about this report is the clear and understandable way it is written. I do very much recommend reading the whole Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions And Realityreport if you can – it’s full of highly pertinent, useful and interesting points for any student of the garden city.

In other news you may well have heard about the current very extensive shake up of the United Kingdom’s planning system. The garden city implications are yet to be worked through but I did notice that garden cities are not mentioned in the UK government’s Planning White Paper, Planning for the Future (August, 2020) that sets out the new approach. However there is in the White Paper a focus on designing and building beautiful places, positive words on capturing land value uplift to fund local infrastructure, and a number of mentions of gardens (if not garden cities). An interesting aspect that could be positive in garden settlement terms is the emphasis on urban design quality, placemaking and the use of design codes to help guide development. A national body is proposed to ‘support the delivery of design codes in every part of the country and give permanence to the campaigning work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’ (Planning for the Future, 2020: page 22). It is also intended that all local authorities appoint a chief officer for design and place-making, to help ensure there is the capacity and capability locally to raise design standards and the quality of development’ (ibid: page 22).

One key part of the proposed approach is to base much of the decision-making about where and how much housing to build on a new algorithm. Although since this was announced, the standard (and for the first time, compulsory) method for such allocation has already been subject to calls for review from within the governing party and other stakeholders. For the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) ‘the question remains as to whether government is prepared to listen to the widespread concerns about this complex sketch of a radical new planning system.’ The UK’s Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) meanwhile has provided a detailed briefing on the implications of the proposed radical changes to the planning system and unpicks some of the issues embedded in the proposed approach although it does not seem to note the absence of garden cities from the White Paper. For a more positive view of planning’s role in future it is probably better to turn to the RTPI’s own recent publication Plan the World We Need, although again garden cities are absent from that discussion.

Looking back over the last few months since April there seems to be something of a paradox: on the one hand many of us have been working quietly at home but meanwhile the external environment has been particularly challenging, we have learned some lessons about how to do new garden settlements well, and some planning changes of national significance are imminent which are likely to impinge on garden cities in future. Let’s see how this all develops in the next months and I will report in again in early November to see where we are up to then.

Stay safe!

Associate Professor Susan Parham
Academic Director, International Garden Cities Institute
September 2nd, 2020.