Institute research news: an update from our Academic Director

Hello. I’m Susan Parham and I work at the International Garden Cities Institute as its academic director. This is the first of what will be a regular research update from me about the Institute, so it’s a bit longer than these will be in future!

As you may know, the Institute was established last year and research is one of its three main areas of work, alongside advocacy and collating information about garden cities.

Research papers

It’s been a busy time on the research front at the International Garden Cities Institute and there’s a fair bit to report. Next month we will be launching the first of our Garden City Perspectives, a series of in-depth research and policy papers that explore all sorts of garden city themes from a wide diversity of viewpoints. The first of these, entitled Garden Cities - Why Not? has been written by the policy analyst Keith Boyfield and I on the theme of the barriers to building new garden cities - and what we might do about that through economics, government policies, place design and planning among other methods. The paper will be available as a PDF to download from our website from July 15th onwards. I do hope you find it interesting, informative and useful.

Research project bids

Over the last few months I have been working with colleagues, including from my own University (Hertfordshire) and the University of Brighton, on a research bid to explore food and garden cities from a planning and urban design point of view. This is a subject close to my heart as I’ve been researching food and cities for many years now and wrote about Howard’s food ideas in my most recent book Food and Urbanism (Bloomsbury, 2015).

We know that Ebenezer Howard was really interested in the role of a productive, localised food system. Reading A Peaceful Path to Real Reform you get a strong sense of how central food was to his vision, as well as the very practical economic and planning ideas he had to make sure income from local food was used for garden city betterment, that local fresh food was available to residents, and that food waste was used locally to enrich the soil, among other positive effects he envisaged.

My colleagues and I feel that the garden city historically as well as now offers some fascinating evidence and possibilities for helping make a sustainable food system in future. We hope our bid for funds to explore this in depth will be successful. I will report back on how that goes.

Planning future research

As you will be aware there are a huge number of potential research areas about garden cities that we could focus on through the new Institute. While that is an exciting prospect it does bring some challenges. The first of these is to identify the range of research possibilities and then to get these ideas into some kind of workable order. One thing I am busy on is developing a research plan to help do that.

Recently I ran a research workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (which is the Institute’s lead academic partner) to see what kinds of research my colleagues there would like to see done or to be involved in developing and carrying out. That really helped, as have a lot of good ideas coming from the Institute’s founding partners on potential research themes from housing to heritage, accessibility to health, culture to economics and more. The idea is to reflect all this in the research plan which will be as practical and deliverable as possible so it’s about the what, who, when and, perhaps most importantly, how much it will cost in relation to research. I’m trying to find answers to questions like: What should we do that is the most relevant to garden city communities and ‘communities of interest’ for garden cities? What could we do quite fast? What might need longer with more people and more funds? Who can we collaborate with? Where might we get funds to do research projects? Again I will let you know when we have some more specific research intentions to report back on.

Doctoral and other students

Another really pleasing thing to report is that we have our first PhD student working with the Institute, Mr Nicolas Vernat, who is from Grenoble School of Architecture and is exploring energy issues in relation to garden cities. I’m helping supervise his work with my colleague Dr Stéphane Sadoux from Grenoble, which is a founding partner and with whom we have established an excellent research relationship.

I am really keen to ensure we do as much primary research as possible to help better understand garden cities and thus inform possibilities for the future. I hope to be able to report on further doctoral research possibilities and student work soon.

(The University of Hertfordshire’s own students from a range of disciplines - including planning, history, art and design - already work with Letchworth on a range of projects).

International research links

Other really positive research news is that the Institute has recently hosted a number of delegations of researchers, policy experts and students from places as diverse as China and Germany as well as other UK universities.

Making research links like this is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of the academic work here. Given that garden cities are a massive international phenomenon, it’s fascinating to gain insights from others’ experience and to forge links which can underpin research work together in future.

Shorter research pieces

Finally, you will have seen that we have some think pieces on the Institute website. For instance, I’ve done a short paper on food and garden cities in historical perspective (and have a second one on that theme in the works) and there are a number of others too on a range of themes. I do urge you to have a read of these - it’s research in what I hope you will find to be bite-sized, palatable chunks.

Get in touch

It’s early days for the Institute but I hope to help it grow into a rich research environment. If you would like to be an active part of that - for instance have garden city related research ideas you’d like to talk to me about do please get in touch!