Academic Director's Blog - April 2017

Well not just Spring but election season is upon us - rather unexpectedly - and has added a surprise element to April’s work at the International Garden Cities Institute. It has been rather a short working month once the Easter holidays are taken into account, and in my case a chocolately one too, as I have to admit I’ve polished off a rather large chocolate rabbit in the last week or two.

More seriously I’ve also been looking at the suggested election pledges being proposed by various think tanks and others before the Parties’ own manifesto statements are published in the coming week, to see what, if anything, is being said about Garden Cities, Garden Villages or related themes. I have to say that I haven’t been able to glean a huge amount yet. That might be because Garden Cities are increasingly seen as an obviously good idea, so that existing very supportive policy and funding statements don’t require much updating.

One perhaps expected point noted by the professional journal, Inside Housing, (April 18th, 2017) is that all the major parties want to see a lot more housing built, with the Lib Dems specifically pledging at least 10 more garden cities. The Town and Country Planning Association is offering ‘guidance’ on election pledges and has ‘called upon all major political parties to restore standards in design and place-making, including low-carbon design and space and accessibility standards for new homes, as part of their manifesto pledges’ and goes on to ask each party to ‘Commit to a new programme of Garden Cities based on a comprehensive update of the New Towns Act, with a legal duty to implement the Garden City principles’ (TCPA
With the Manifestos themselves coming out next week it should be possible to report on what exactly is being proposed in relation to Garden Cities, Garden Towns, Garden Suburbs and Garden Villages and I will return to this next month.

As I noted last month (March 2017) I have sent off for review the ‘Garden cities – visionary, viable and popular?’ Perspectives paper I have co-written with Anthony Downs and Gavin Murray which is illustrated in part by Pablo Fernandez. I had hoped to finalise it by the end of April so that it could make its way on to our International Garden Cities Institute website but - mea culpa - I’m afraid I haven’t managed that. Do stay tuned though for the publication coming out soon - although perhaps I better not make any ‘hostage to fortune’ comments about exactly when!

I said last month that I would tell you a little more about Martin Crookston’s excellent ‘Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates’ (Routledge, 2016). First up, it is a terrific book, about what Sir Peter Hall calls in his foreword, ‘a forgotten piece of England’. Martin points out that the cottage estates - ‘corporation suburbia’ (p1), a term he credits Richard Turkington for inventing - were the creation of local councils who ‘all across Britain spent an enormous amounts of time, effort and money building a new and optimistic form of housing’ (p.1).  And they drew on Garden City and Garden Suburb models in the UK and Europe to provide ‘family homes with gardens for some 3 million mainly working class households. It was a mammoth achievement’ (p.1).

Of course from my point of view, while the whole story is fascinating, it is the Garden City connections that are of most relevance to this blog and as Martin points out cité-jardins in France, the garden city of Hellerau in Germany, as well as Letchworth, Welwyn, Hampstead and others all had a strong influence. A place like the small Tower Gardens in Tottenham, north London, is a particularly interesting example of an early, well designed Garden Suburb with which I was completely unfamiliar; while even the very large corporation suburb of Becontree in outer east London (which one of my students wrote an excellent dissertation on) had some connection to Garden City shaping in its curvilinear design.

Put rather crudely (by me, not Martin!) a strong theme is that the early 20th  century cottage estates tended to work better than later Post-War examples where ‘Radburn’ layouts alongside other modernist design and social changes produced a range of unfortunate results. As Martin Crookston says, ‘the suggested ‘continuum’ from Tower Gardens to Orchard Park is, amongst other things, a continuum from legible urban streets and Arts & Crafts house style to incomprehensible layouts and cheap-as-chips construction, as well as from 1905 to 1965’ (p.88). A place like Wythenshawe, outer Manchester, which started out as a Garden Suburb but post war became to some extent like the other Post-War estates offers a salutary lesson of negative change in one place…(p.112).

Looking forward, Martin Crookston suggests that as well as threats of low demand in the north and overheated housing markets in the south, these Garden City inspired estates offer us some interesting potential lessons in relation to achieving social mix and stability (p.165), sorting out the economic life of such places (p.168), and offering place and house design of high quality in new areas to make the sorts of places people want to live (p.169). Martin Crookston concludes with the idea that perhaps a new round of ‘corporation suburbia’ could help us meet our housing and place needs by offering us new, desirable garden suburbs. A copy is available to read in the Reading Room here at The International Garden Cities Institute. It’s a very worthwhile read indeed.

A final piece of relevant news is that I have applied and am pleased to say I have been accepted as a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute. I have been meaning to join the RTPI as a chartered town planner for years and I am hoping to take an active part in the Institute’s focus on garden cities and planned settlements more generally. I will report back on any interesting news emanating from that new connection in future.