Academic Director's blog - December + Janaury 2018

I hope you all had a restful Christmas period and avoided the dreaded flu which seems particularly bad this year. For me it’s reached that stage of winter when you start to think – well this has been going on for long enough now. The bare trees do have a bleak beauty of course and their very starkness should make those first green buds a particularly welcome contrast when spring finally comes.

First of all I am really pleased to announce that our third Garden City Perspectives paper, on Garden Cities in Africa, written by IGCI founding partner Keith Boyfield and colleague, Oni Oviri, has now been published. We are very grateful to Keith and Oni for all their hard work on this and to my colleague Josh Tidy who has nurtured the draft through to publication, researching images and liaising with our local printers. You can find the new paper on our International Garden Cities website. Among a wealth of great material and argument, Keith and Oni alert us to the staggering growth statistics for African cities and some of these conurbations’ serious challenges in terms of providing sufficient infrastructure, jobs, and liveable environments. They trace historic and more recent examples of garden cities (or developments with garden city characteristics) built in different parts of Africa, including in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Gabon, and argue that:

“Governments will clearly need to initiate bold new schemes to deal with the pressures stemming from a rapidly growing population. One potential approach that offers attractions is the idea of creating new communities built on Garden City principles with a variety of employment opportunities. While it is possible to outline the ingredients for successful communities, in practice, it is of course far more difficult to realise this vision. What is more, such initiatives are only likely to help those in permanent, salaried work, but it is nevertheless …over time, if funding is secured, these new garden communities could be extended to provide accommodation for those at the lower end of the income scale” (2018: 5)

Calling for a fresh approach Keith and Oni suggest a number of prerequisites are necessary to make such developments possible, including value chains that deliver housing through formal channels, supportive land tenure systems, suitable housing and building regulations and standards, accessible mortgage finance, stronger capital markets, and more affordable construction costs. They ask whether Garden Cities created by Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) are a practical possibility. As they posit: “The incidence of poverty and the sheer extent of the informal housing sector across Africa require a raft of complementary initiatives to improve housing quality and affordability (2018: 15). They set out seven recommendations to address the issues raised and the first of these is to:

Create Garden Cities and Urban Extensions through Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) established specifically to deliver new towns. These may prove to be a highly relevant and attractive means for ensuring delivery of housing, infrastructure and jobs. SPVs are legal entities set up for a particular purpose that can be tailored to individual legal jurisdictions. They offer a routine model – easily replicated – that delivers new communities of housing with appropriate facilities and amenities. In this sense, it is a pro forma mechanism which means that one does not have to reinvent a model to ensure houses and linked infrastructure are delivered” (2018: 15).

I do hope you will have the chance to read the whole paper – it is a really excellent read, highly thought provoking and full of useful specific proposals.

In other news, last month I told you about our new doctoral scholar on food and garden cities, Amelie Andre, who is starting to undertake some detailed mapping of the food system in Letchworth. This is so we can find out more about agriculture/urban agriculture including orchards, allotments and community gardens; food processing and distribution companies and spaces; retailing including shops, stalls and markets; the spread of cafes, pubs and restaurants, and how people and institutions are dealing with food ‘waste’. This is part of Amelie’s ‘HKEP’ (Hertfordshire Knowledge Exchange Partnership) project which covers the first 12 months of the doctoral programme. Its very applied focus on the food economy will help inform Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation’s work in this area.

Amelie and I were also very lucky in mid-January to be able to connect up with garden city scholars from Grenoble Architecture School’s Laboratory for Building Cultures, including its director, Dr Stephane Sadoux, and doctoral scholars, Nicolas Vernat and Steven Saulnier, hosted by Dr Matthew Hardy at the Princes Foundation for Building Community. Amelie introduced her work to them, I then presented some recent applied research in food retrofitting in a garden city and new town context, and we heard about some of the garden city influenced work they are doing. All in all it was a terrific exchange of ideas and possibilities centred on garden city practice.

Once of the pleasures of working on garden cities as a researcher is being able to share knowledge about them with students and I have recently been lecturing our really talented geography undergraduates on planning ideal communities. With them I have been exploring the evolution of UK planning practice from model villages to eco-towns and new garden cities. This is, of course, a fascinating aspect of urban history but it is the contemporary possibilities and politics that are perhaps the most interesting as new garden towns and villages come on stream around the country. Outside the university, I also gave a talk this month on food and urban design in garden cities and new towns, at the architecture, urban design and planning firm, HTA Design, in London. I found it really heartening that the designers there didn’t appear to see garden city ideas in any way at odds with ‘cutting edge’ architectural and urban design but were clearly interested in how radical and visionary Howard’s food system proposals remain today.

Well I think that is all for this ‘extended edition’ blog covering December and January. I will look forward to talking to you again at the end of February when I hope we will have edged just a little bit closer to spring.