Blog: Update from our Academic Director August

I hope everyone has had an excellent and restful holiday. On mine I had the chance to walk around the planned town of Dinard in Brittany which has some placemaking connections to the way garden cities were designed.

As you no doubt know its the town where the Wales national team stayed during the Euros so given how well they did in the competition it clearly has some positive effects on those who stay there. It was interesting to see how a late 19th century ‘Belle Époque’ town of a planned kind was shaped and functions today and compare it with Letchworth. I expect you may well now be gearing up for the often very busy period that September ushers in. This is certainly the case at the International Garden Cities Institute where a number of research activities are in train or preparation.

Research papers

As foreshadowed in my first blog, in July 2016 we launched the first of our Garden City Perspectives papers at a well-attended event at the International Garden Cities Institute in Barry Parker’s wonderful Drawing Office building. At that launch I aexplained that this is a series of in-depth research and policy papers to 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. I hope you find this download interesting, informative and useful. 

Among our conclusions are that while there is an increasing number of developments badged as ‘Garden Cities’, to make them live up to the Garden City promise, we really need to be producing whole places where people can live and work happily - as the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn have done over about a hundred years. In a related way we might also need to understand more about how we can ‘retrofit’ some existing places that don’t work very well, using Garden City based or sympathetic principles to make them better.

In our paper we point out that this isn’t nostalgia - it’s very much about 21st century urbanism as Garden Cities can look highly traditional and attractive but also still have various smart infrastructure built into them. We point to some practical examples of places being developed around the country - some of them being undertaken by founding partners - that show what can be done to make great new places to live which are in tune with these principles. 

We argue that the Garden City ‘brand’, if you like, hasn’t been tainted and this should help make new Garden Cities more acceptable to communities than perhaps other kinds of developments would be. But we need to make sure what’s proposed really does conform to or is at least in sympathy with Garden City principles - spatial, economic, value capturing, governance related - and then to work with people before new places are planned and developed to make sure they want this to happen.

It’s worth just noting too that we have a number of other Garden City Perspectives papers in the pipeline now and will be launching those in due course. I will keep you posted.

Research visitors 

Near the end of August we were lucky enough to host a high level delegation from the Korean Planning Institute, which included a number of very senior academics in urban planning and related areas. It was fascinating to explore the way Garden City related urban development has proceeded in Korea, which I think it would be fair to say many of us don’t know very much about, and to compare with experience in the UK and elsewhere. We are intending to stay in touch and we are hoping to have a Perspectives paper on Korean Garden City experience in due course as well as possibly initiating some comparative research opportunities. Again I will provide updates as this excellent connection continues.

Research presentations 

Later in September I will be co-presenting a talk on Garden Cities with founding partner and academic colleague from the University of Grenoble, Dr Stéphane Sadoux. Dr Sadoux runs the University’s Centre for Research in Building Cultures and is a Garden Cities expert. Together we have been invited to present at the prestigious Bernard Secchi Working Seminar 2016 at the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies, Geneva. The seminar is entitled ‘The city of the rich and the city of the poor: urban and social visions for sustainable development’. Within that context we will address the topic of how Garden Cities can help us combat the problem of urban inequality that is closely connected to urban sprawl which blights parts of the UK and elsewhere.

Some future research plans

With Dr Sadoux and colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire I am also exploring doing research on the very hot topic of health and Garden Cities. If you read Ebenezer Howard’s work, and that of other, later Garden City proponents, it seems fairly obvious that Garden Cities were conceived as healthful places. This was completely central to them. Today it would be reasonable to claim that Garden Cities and suburbs have turned out in various was to support good health, but not done so well in others. In the UK given our widespread problems with obesity and ill health, which some say, will be a terrible burden on the NHS and our communities in future this is really important in this country. Of course it is also critical in other places so it’s not just a British problem.

Recently in the UK as you may well have heard the NHS launched a ‘Healthy New Towns’ initiative in recognition of the importance of Garden City placemaking ideas and practices to good health outcomes. However there is still not much ‘primary’ research to support such initiatives - that is, research that goes back to first principles and gathers evidence to explore whether garden cities have lived up to Howard’s expectations on the health front, why that might be, and what we might do now to make sure they do both in the UK and in other places. To that end I will be attending an information day later in the month in Brussels on possible funding sources to underpin such research. I am hoping to find out just what is needed to develop a successful international, comparative research bid.

Think pieces - Food and Garden Cities 2 

You might have seen a second think piece from me on the theme of food and garden cities, Food and garden cities in principle and practice, that was posted on the Institute website at the end of July 2016. As I said in my last blog I research food and urbanism, and the history and current food practices related to Garden Cities is of particular interest to me. I hope it will also be to you and you find this an enjoyable read.

Get in touch

I hope to help the Institute 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!