Design solutions to air pollution

David Ames reveals why Garden Cities could be one important way to offer people healthy places to live and work after the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health revealed 40,000 people die each year in the UK due to air pollution

It has been reported that in London alone around 9,500 people lose their lives each year due to air pollution, much of which is due to vehicle emissions in our capital. Reports by medics this month put it far higher.  This coupled with overcrowding in some of the most deprived parts of the capital, along with a 51% increase in London house prices in the past five years, has led to a worrying set of conditions, which is not confined to London alone and bears some resemblance to the circumstances in late Victorian Britain. 

Then poor air quality was from factories and slums from overcrowded housing with poor sanitation, which led to the instigation of town planning, the origin of which can in part be traced back to 1898, when Ebenezer Howard wrote a seminal book, To-Morrow a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. This sought to address the dreadful living conditions and inequity of paying high rents, from which the community gains no benefit, by the creation of the Garden City model, accompanied by a series of principles, which are still in place at Letchworth Garden City.

With London bursting at the seams and plans to grow further, and calls for increased densities in more suburban parts of the capital, the detrimental impact on the quality of our air and health in general, may be an inevitable consequence. As the Greater London Authority and others seek to address this issue, there is a clear opportunity to allow town planning to again be at the heart of the solution.

Howard advocated the Garden City Model as part of the answer to the problems of the 1890s. Today, successive governments have failed to deliver the volume of housing we need and Howard’s Garden City concept is again part of the debate about how we should grow, but with little understanding as to what this truly entails.

Howard wanted to ensure that workers had clean and healthy places to live, with access to work, open space and leisure. These were to be run by a local trust, which shared increases in land value with the community and had a long-term stewardship model in place, to ensure the town is looked after and residents can be at the heart of local decisions. Howard saw Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities as experiments, which would then persuade governments to take on the concept. This influenced new settlements across the world, including the post war New Towns in the UK. 

Today there is a real opportunity for our cities to use Howard’s social city concept and provide a series of satellite towns, with direct links into a central conurbation. Each of these satellite towns would be a Garden City on their own merits, with attractive modern design and high quality modern solutions for the way we live and work.

Howard’s model leads to some decanting of the population from the city, enabling slum areas to be regenerated.  In today’s world such an approach would not mean that London would not have to meet its own housing needs, but part of this could be provided by way of carefully planned Garden Cities, allowing inner cities to be regenerated.

What is lacking in the current situation is a plan, which must have regard to the health of the population living in London and new settlements. Such a plan would create certainty to enable communities to play an integral role in the design and implementation of new places and also ensure that we can avoid the present problem with overcrowded polluted places, at great financial, health and environmental cost.

  • David Ames is Head of Heritage and Strategic Planning at Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation and a Founding Partner of the International Garden Cities Institute