Academic Director's blog - February & March 2018

Hello! In my last blog I foreshadowed our first very welcome steps into spring but it seems I was a little precipitate! More snow is forecast as I write this blog in mid March 2018 so the wait for warmth and green shoots continues. I’m a little late posting the blog for February as some fairly major academic commitments seem to have taken up a fair proportion of my time, so here I’m combining reporting on activities from both February and March 2018. There have been some interesting external developments, and I am pleased to say some IGCI initiatives starting, others continuing and one project reanimating after a winter ‘hibernation’ period.

On the ‘external’ front the government has just released a ‘consultation draft’ of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) that was first released in 2012. This is the statutory framework for planning in England and Wales. This draft 2018 version is prefaced by a very strongly worded statement about the need for planning to be focused on meeting housing needs and resolving the housing crisis that’s been identified in the UK. Of course, various garden city scholars and practitioners were keenly anticipating the new version of the NPPF to see what would be said about garden cities as part of responding to housing issues. In the context of significant government support in policy and financial terms for garden settlements over the last few years as a way of helping on housing - and more holistically on planning that makes sustainable and liveable places - it was rather an unwelcome surprise to see that garden city principles did not feature in the revised NPPF.

As Hugh Ellis from the Town and Country Planning Association put it in a recent blog, this created ‘the mystery of the vanishing garden city principles’ (see As Hugh writes:

Perhaps worse of all, the new NPPF removes any reference to the Garden City Principles from its policy on strategic growth. I find this the most extraordinary move of all given that many authorities were genuinely trying to bring forward scale growth, and the government continually talks about garden towns and villages. These principles really matter and removing them creates confusion and undermines confidence in the government’s commitment to placemaking.

My own view is that this absence of garden cities from the NPPF is both perplexing and disappointing. I’m hoping that through the consultation on the draft text - I’m writing in and I hope others will too - that can be sorted out. What I would like to see is garden cities and other types of garden settlements, recognised in the NPPF as an important part of our approach to solving the housing crisis. That should mean specific words about them, including their principles, being reinserted into our national framework for planning where these rightly belong.

While on the topic of the TCPA many congratulations to them for winning the best book award at the recent Urban Design Group national awards 2018. This was richly deserved in a formidable field of finalists for their terrific book, The Art of Building a Garden City: Designing New Communities for the 21st Century, written by  Kate Henderson, Katy Lock and Hugh Ellis, and published by RIBA. We will have a copy at the Institute library for anyone who wants to check it out. Do come in one Friday and do that!

In the ‘new activities’ column I was very pleased to be invited to join IGCI founding partner Mr Keith Boyfield and Mr Henry Brooks of the Tatton Estate for a tour in Hatfield and Letchworth recently to explore planned settlements including garden city place shaping. We managed to pack in a lot of detail in a fairly constrained time period and I think it was useful all round. My colleagues were extremely nice about it but one thing it did make clear to me was there are still plenty of areas I need to know more about garden cities so I can be a better guide in future! 

Further from home I was also pleased to be invited to teach on the University of Glasgow and The Prince’s Foundation’s Urban Studies Masters Programme module focusing on engaging on urban issues. Working with joint module leaders Dr Mathew Hardy (Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism, The Prince’s Foundation) and Dr James White (Lecturer in Urban Design, University of Glasgow), I was able to explore with a notably good student cohort the way that garden city type developments could be a model for engagement methods. These learning points were reinforced by great applied practice input from Mr Ed Taylor (Taylor Architecture and Urbanism) about ‘Enquiry by Design’ (EBD) processes in garden city sympathetic settlement planning, design and engagement. There was also some fascinating input on ‘charrette’ techniques (intensive design focused workshops similar to EBDs), again in garden city type contexts, from doctoral student Michael Kordas who is studying these at the University of Glasgow.

The gorgeous library at the revived Dumfries House in East Ayrshire, home to part of The Prince’s Foundation’s Education Department, made a unique setting for the teaching which I think both staff and students greatly enjoyed. The house and grounds at Dumfries (formerly the home of the Marquis of Bute) have been renewed since 2007 through a massive financial and social effort that’s gone far beyond saving the house’s remarkable collection of Chippendale furniture. It’s clear these transformation are providing a terrific range of local facilities including skills training opportunities and underpinning a great deal of regeneration which was wonderful to see in the Cumnock community badly affected by pit closures. On a personal note, I’ve never taught before in a room redesigned from what was once Scotland’s first Turkish bath!

I’ve also been doing lots of teaching closer to home at the University of Hertfordshire and I am finding that garden city related learning is enriching a range of undergraduate and graduate work. For example students who have completed our recent Masters in Sustainable Planning module on Urban Design and Conservation have had a great opportunity to hear from developers planning their own garden village and garden city sympathetic town extension projects. A fascinating masterclass from Mr Anthony Downs (another IGCI founding partner) earlier this month on this topic helped students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of garden city principles applied to the development of new places today.

In January’s blog I welcomed the excellent Garden Cities Perspectives Paper on Garden Cities in Africa produced by Mr Keith  Boyfield and Ms Oni Oviri.( I do hope you have had a chance to look at that. In a similar vein (and in the ‘continuing’ category) I am making progress on a Perspectives Paper of my own on garden cities and food in historical and contemporary perspective. I hope by my next blog I will be able to announce that is out to readers. Also in the ‘continuing’ category, our garden city and food economy scholar, Ms Amelie Andre, continues to make excellent progress on her knowledge transfer project and some specific reporting on that will be available fairly soon so look out for that.

And finally, it’s very good to be able to say that a long developing research bid on food and garden cities is coming to fruition. My colleague from the University of Brighton, Prof Andre Viljoen and I  hope to submit that shortly to a UK research council. These bodies fund research across a range of areas but as you can imagine are incredibly competitive, so it’s something of a long shot but one we believe very much deserves to be funded. The thing I particularly like about this proposal is how applied it is. We are looking at food landscapes from food growing to processing, distribution and retail spaces in Letchworth and elsewhere and the intention is to develop that research with local communities and involve them in practical applied food projects. I hope funders will take the same view.

That’s all from me in this busy February-March period. I will report in again in the Spring.