TCPA launches a 'practical guide' to edible garden cities

Latest blog from Susan Parham, Academic Director

It is great to see that the Town and Country Planning Association’s (TCPA) new practical guide on garden cities and food, The Guide to Edible Garden Cities, has been launched. We were very pleased that the International Garden Cities Institute (IGCI) was asked to take a key part in developing the guide based on the expertise we have on this theme. I helped the TCPA structure and write the guide, which was a very enjoyable and interesting process working with Katy Lock and colleagues, to ensure critical points are covered in a highly practical way. 

Thanks are due to the TCPA for collaborating on this and for the very kind acknowledgment of my input and that of our University of Hertfordshire-Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Industry Scholar, Amélie André, as we both also took part in a ‘roundtable’ run by the TCPA as it developed this practical guide.

Food and cities think pieces
As you know from my previous blogs as IGCI Academic Director, I have a long term background on research in the area of food and cities and have written a number of Think Pieces for the Institute, on Ebenezer Howard’s food perspectives from utopian roots to practical proposals, and then into garden cities’ food principles and practices, which you can find on this website. Amélie André, our Industry Scholar, has also written some fascinating work on the topic of the garden city food economy based on her current research, which adds to the overall picture of garden cities and food highly relevant to this guide.

Combining the best of town and country
The Guide to Edible Garden Cities (2019), offers the reader a highly applied and practical approach to ensuring that food is built into planning for new garden settlements. As the TCPA explains, its guides ‘are not detailed handbooks but instead set out the scope of opportunities for ambitious councils who want to create high-quality, large-scale new developments, whether or not they are able to follow all the Garden City Principles’ (2019, p2). In this spirit, these ‘living documents’ (2019, p2) help set out some basic things garden city proponents can do to make new places work in food terms according to garden city principles. These include ‘Beautifully and imaginatively designed homes with gardens, combining the best of town and country to create healthy communities, and including opportunities to grow food.’ (2019, p2).

Urban agriculture and the local food chain
Early in the development of the Practical Guide, I commented to the TCPA that the document needed to make sure any advice covers the whole food chain because all its aspects are part of making garden cities that thrive in food terms. This was something that Ebenezer Howard clearly foresaw, as can be seen from his extensive writing about food in his work on garden cities, and in his actual place development actions in Letchworth Garden City and then in Welwyn Garden City. While aspects including urban agriculture are really important to the garden city model, Ebenezer Howard also rightly covered garden city inspired approaches to food distribution, food buying, cooking and dining, and food ‘waste’ and compost as well. Just think of his development of Homesgarth in Letchworth which included rather revolutionary communal cooking and dining spaces.

And what of his ‘Crystal Palace’ for shopping, including for food, that prefigures the shopping mall? Or his fascinating way of economically and spatially connecting local produce from farms and milk from dairies with a local market for food and making ‘land value capture’ profit for the townsfolk from this more localised food system? The TCPA reflects this in the guide, saying that the ‘Garden City pioneers recognised the importance of integrating planning and design with the way we produce, process and consume food, as well as the importance of managing food waste.’  It is great to see that this message is at the heart of the guide.

Quoting from an earlier piece of mine the Edible Garden Cities Guide explains that, ‘Ebenezer Howard saw each Garden City (and the wider constellation of Garden City settlements he envisioned as the ‘Social City’) as able to deal very positively with food – spatially, socially and economically. In his book To-Morrow – A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), Howard explained the crucial role of positively linking food producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers. He proposed an agricultural belt and an integrated landscape of farms, dairies, orchards, forests, allotments, and smallholdings on the urban edges, as well as vegetable growing in the town’s abundant private gardens.

The town itself provided a ready market for fresh, wholesome, locally produced food, and food waste would go back to enrich the soil in the productive, integrated landscape of the multi-functional agricultural belt. Land not yet in use for building could be improved by fruit tree planting and dairy farming. Rents from farms would help fund community services through the Garden City’s unique land value capture model. Food would be moved by electric rail and canal.’ (2019, p4).

Edible garden cities
The Guide usefully defines what it means by edible garden cities and focuses on their benefits to health and wellbeing, inclusive communities, environmental restoration and sustainability, economic development and skills, amenity and good design, and planning, including through the National Planning Policy Framework. Edible garden cities are, it says, about a sustainable local food system which:

For a new community incorporates everything from encouraging healthy eating and community food-growing, to thinking about the commercial opportunities for growing, processing and distributing food within and beyond the new community. This relates to a continuum of scales, from the wider considerations of food supply and the relationship between agriculture on the peri-urban and rural edges of a new community, to urban farms, new forests, farmers’ markets, and food cooperatives, right down to green roofs on individual buildings and the smallest of window-boxes. It involves ensuring that the design of housing meets basic human needs, including the space to store produce, cook and eat together with family and friends.’ (2019, p6).

Sustainable food systems in garden cities
The guide sets out that there are specific ways that garden cities can design and plan places to make them healthy and vibrant, making use of the garden city model to help create a sustainable local food system. The themes they note are:

  • improved health and wellbeing
  • inclusive and sociable communities
  • environmental restoration and sustainability, including resilience to climate change
  • opportunities for economic development, investment and skills development
  • improved amenity and good urban design.’ (2019, p3).

So what about the nitty-gritty? What does that mean for new garden city settlements in future? Three areas are identified where practical action can be taken: in relation to planning and finance; design and delivery; and management and long-term stewardship (2019, p3). A number of ‘principles for success’ are identified and explained in some detail under these three headings (2019, 14). The guide then gives excellent case studies of places where elements of food-focused planning and design demonstrate how the principles can work in practice.

Healthy new towns
Case studies cover aspects like embedding local food system requirements into Local Plan policy, such as at the new development of Northstowe in South Cambridgeshire. This development is also part of the NHS England’s Healthy New Towns policy initiative. In Northstowe a healthy living strategy helps put food centre stage by requiring developers to build in productive landscapes and accessibility to healthy food options. Another example comes from the new garden community of ‘edible Ebbsfleet’ which builds on the groundbreaking ‘Incredible Edible Todmorden’ initiative. Here, ‘through local food-growing, residents will be encouraged to get involved in cooking, growing and eating healthily and in getting to know their neighbours.’ (2019, p22). Meanwhile, Barton Park near Oxford is a Healthy New Towns ‘demonstrator’ site where emphasis has been put on communicating information about healthy food options and opportunities as well as influencing the urbanism of the place that is being developed there.

Re-imagining Letchworth
It is not yet developed, but Letchworth Garden City’s own ‘new part of town’ is being planned following a recent design competition. Re-imagining the Garden City, promises to provide perhaps one of the most fully realised examples of food being placed at the heart of garden city development today. I was lucky enough to take part in developing the brief for that competition and the Heritage Foundation was strongly committed to making food a key theme. It required all the competition entrants to show how their schemes would include local food growing opportunities. As the brief (2018, p13) notes, ‘Ideas for the inclusion of urban agriculture incorporating continuous productive urban landscapes should be proposed in the master planning proposals, to ensure that the new community has the best opportunity to grow and source local food, which will also be linked to the management of open spaces and the opportunity for exercise and healthy living.’

Perhaps the next iteration of the Edible Garden Cities Guide will be able to include this case study as the proposals from the successful entry, from EcoResponsive Environments, start to help this become a new garden city neighbourhood. 

A valuable guide
In conclusion, this new guide focusing on food from the TCPA provides a valuable addition to our stock of applied advice on making new places in the spirit of the garden city principles. I am very pleased that my colleague Amélie André and I were able to contribute to it along with a number of other people, as the guide acknowledges. The TCPA is to be commended for this shared, collaborative approach to the guide’s development as it brought in knowledge and experience as well as real examples from a wide variety of places.

Finally, it’s worth saying that while the overall focus of Edible Garden Cities is on new places, it is pleasing to see that the advice should also work in places where ‘retrofitting’ or repair of what’s there now is envisaged. As I noted at the time to the TCPA, given much of our existing urbanism isn’t all that well focused on food, there is plenty of scope for garden city inspired action in a lot of previously developed places, as well as new ones.

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Susan Parham is Associate Professor and Head of Urbanism and Planning at the University of Hertfordshire.