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Garden Cities, the perfect city in an imperfect world

  • United Kingdom
  • Real estate

17-08-2020

Sir Peter Hall in his seminal Cities of Tomorrow suggests that Garden Cities are a “quasi-utopia”: the “perfect city achievable in an imperfect world”. The history of Letchworth, the first Garden City founded in September 1903, reflects those imperfections. During a period of very strong housing growth, Letchworth only managed to deliver a modest community of 15,000 homes in 35 years to 1938.

Letchworth reminds us that there has never been a period in modern history when it’s been easy to build new communities. The task demands a healthy cocktail of optimism, opportunism and humanity.

The Garden City movement’s best achievements were often born of necessity, reflecting the intense concern of society to build a better future in answer to war, disease and even the occasional pandemic. Ebenezer Howard, “the single most important character in the tale” and the driving force behind Letchworth, was driven by an overwhelming concern to find an equitable and sustainable model of urban expansion, at a time when cities were overwhelmed by congestion and squalor.

If you are in any doubt that this same energy and commitment for change is with us now, just spend a little time in conversation with a colleague, friend or relative who has spent most of this year self-isolating in a small flat in any city. You will, believe me, very quickly establish that there is a burning desire in our community for a better way of living and a reasonable expectation that the Government should make it happen.

It would be a mistake to think that there is a quick and easy response, as shown in the recent difficulties faced by the promotors of Garden Villages in and around Colchester and Stansted. In the case of the North Essex Authorities Local Plan, the ambition to deliver three new settlements of some 43,000 new homes over a 50-year period quickly hit the buffers of a plan making system that can’t see beyond a 15-year horizon and where the macro-economics of this scale of development is often assessed and debated in an afternoon session of a bland examination process. In the Uttlesford Plan, ambition simply outstripped the hard reality of trying to deliver a well-intentioned concept in a system fixated with detail and certainty.

We can, of course, blame an outmoded and dis-functional system, but in reality, there isn’t a system (zoned or otherwise) that can successfully commit to and deliver a 50-year development programme and know that the finished product will have been worth the effort. The obvious truth is that ambition, politics, funding and taste will always change with time. This can be seen in the would-be Garden Villages secured under the 1946 New Towns Act, which may have delivered the numbers, but will never be described as a resounding success.

The honest and purposeful response to all this is to accept the limitations of the system and to both work with and around it. We can only really make commitments today in the delivery of Garden Villages that will be fully realised by the next generation. In turn, we must accept and embrace the fact that it is an incremental and evolving process that can best be effectively framed by some fairly simple and straightforward rules. It is easy to underestimate it, but the unified force of carefully crafted policy and legal obligation can often do far more than is ever given credence.

This isn’t about prescription, but about providing the breathing space for imagination and engagement. As Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, put it:“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Sometimes good planning is all about providing the freedom and space to break the rules. If we think of the cities we love and the physical aspects that give us real pleasure, it is often the accidental or the unplanned that delights. It is all there in medieval alleyways and squares, in the hotch-potch of building styles and uses in our Victorian cities - and even in the juxtaposition of old and new in the post-war era.

We really should not underestimate the impetus for change. And if we didn’t appreciate it this time last year, we certainly should and do now. We have been given an opportunity to try and build our own unique Garden Cities, to do it with imagination and purpose and with real appetite and appreciation for our whole community. We really shouldn’t waste this unique moment.