Academic Director’s Blog January-March 2020

Hello!  Well what a challenging time this is for everybody. Since I last blogged in December 2019 things have changed radically. I am writing this from home near the end of March 2020 and like many others am fortunate to be able to continue to work from here and engage with the Institute’s community of interest through this virtual means. I am thinking about those for whom things are much harder: who are suffering from Covid-19 – or are at most risk of doing so – and have to stay in self isolation for a considerable period. 

I am also thinking of those risking their lives to run our health services, ensure our food supply, care for our vulnerable people, keep providing our emergency services, deliver things we need to our homes, and volunteer to offer what support they can to those who are more isolated or vulnerable than they are. And, of course there are many who are losing their livelihoods, and even their access to food and places to live as the result of the current situation.

All this makes me reflect on Ebenezer Howard’s garden city principles which I think resoundingly stand the test posed by the emergency situation caused by this pandemic. As you know Howard was motivated to find ways to develop new planned garden cities in response to ill health and poor living conditions caused by overcrowding, inequality and poverty. Howard sought to understand developing scientific knowledge in health, hygiene, settlement making, agriculture and food systems, and localised ‘sustainable’ movement, stewardship, and collective action and governance, among other areas.

Howard proposed a highly practical responses to these inadequacies in his own society. He focused his efforts on things like access to fresh air, local green space, walkable green streets, local shops, vegetable gardens at home and commercial food production close to home, and collective ways to share wealth, manage resources and enhance social life.

The garden city principle that relates to food is a good example of Howard’s approach.

This calls for ‘Beautifully and imaginatively designed homes with gardens, combining the best of town and country to create healthy communities, and including opportunities to grow food.’ (TCPA, accessed March 27 2020). Many of the homes in the garden city were designed to include space for growing vegetables and keeping poultry, and there were vegetable garden areas planned in to be shared by a few households and very close to home. Barry Parker did excellent designs for these which are were shown in 2018’s Parker exhibition, ‘Architecture for All’, at Letchworth’s Broadway Gallery.

Households could thus grow at least some of their own fruit and vegetables and obtain eggs from their own hens. There was also a ring of market gardens, orchards and dairies ensuring a localised supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk, cream and cheese that was easy to access. Arable crops a little further out provided grains for local milling.

Of course, this is connected to some other garden city principles. Look at ‘Strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable, vibrant, sociable neighbourhoods’ and ‘Integrated and accessible transport systems, with walking, cycling and public transport designed to be the most attractive forms of local transport.’. These principles meant making sure things people need to access day to day are, as far as possible, in walkable range from home.

Now we may well envy those who live in the areas where they can still walk to local shops to buy basic food supplies without having to negotiate long queues struggling to social distance outside supermarkets. We can hope our local areas are pleasant, uncrowded, unpolluted and easy to access as we walk or cycle (or run!) from home rather than drive elsewhere in the exercise we do once a day from home. But that might not be many peoples’ experience which might – intuitively – be one of the reasons a number of people are still wanting to drive to other places to exercise.

The benefits of placemaking that the garden city principles enshrine – of local accessibility, stewardship and sharing of resources, and close connections to the food system among others – are starting to be a topic of conversation on social media. I saw on Twitter the other day a food writer saying how lucky they are to have access to such local shops and noting how well provisioned they thus are in food terms. While we can be pleased at least some people are enjoying good access to food, this is not really about luck. We have structured and financed a development system that hasn’t taken into account the kinds of principles the garden cities were (and are) intended to apply in practice. A very timely article by Prof Tim Lang from the Centre for Food Policy at City University explains these structural factors very well – you can see Prof Lang’s article here).

The point I draw from this is that the garden city principles suggest ways of shaping places that we have lost or watered down in large parts of our cities – especially the more suburban and low density and sometimes sprawling parts of them we have built over peri-urban agricultural land since the Second World War.  

So, instead of localised food production and processing supporting fresher and cheaper food and healthier soils and water systems we have gown crops at large scale often for animal feed and relied on imports of vegetables and fruit from other places.

Instead of localised and dispersed food distribution systems that help ensure accessibility to retailers and produce less carbon, we have built huge distribution and logistics hubs a long way from where food is either grown or sold by retailers based on ‘just in time’ distribution and retailing supply systems.

Instead of retaining lots of local food shops – butchers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, cheesemongers, fishmongers – which most could walk to in order to buy food and thus access healthier food in a healthier way, we have made most people reliant dependent on being able to drive to a few major supermarkets for all their food access. The current crisis shows that online systems are just not available at anything like the scale they would need to be at to manage these ‘last mile’ issues of ensuring people can access food if they can’t leave home. It’s quite possible they can’t be given the structural issues Pro Lang refers to. 

In this context, Howard’s garden city principles and the ideas they are based on look more robust than ever when we consider the weaknesses in a number of our systems and the assumptions which are being tested and found wanting in the response to the pandemic.

Letchworth Garden City is itself in the process of developing a new urban neighbourhood on the northern edge of the town. As I’ve reported on in previous blogs the masterplanning for this is being done following a design competition won by EcoResponsive Environments. The way that food will be integrated into the design and stewardship of the neighbourhood is a key theme that the masterplanners have really engaged with in their winning design proposals. This offers us a chance to see how applied approaches in keeping with Ebenezer Howard’s principles – on food and other aspects – can help on the issues the pandemic is throwing in to sharp relief.

Additionally, work Letchworth is doing through a City Team working on the EdiCitNet international research project on food centred approaches to placemaking is also going to offer us valuable lessons. Similarly, work by our Garden City Scholar on Letchworth’s food economy which I have previously blogged about also offers us some great learning points in this area.

If we are to find some silver linings from this really difficult time, let some of these be about ensuring we take seriously Howard’s insights in making new places in future and remaking our existing ones. In both cases this will make us better able to act positively and equitably – and more resilient – in the face of climate change related shocks we know are coming our way.

A final note: There is much more about Barry Parker including his housing and place designs too in Vicky Axell’s lovely book about Parker which can be bought from The Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. 

All the best from me until my next blog

Associate Professor Susan Parham
International Garden Cities Institute, March 2020