How green is my garden village?

The expansion of the garden towns programme, announced by government at the start of January, will see the delivery of 14 new garden villages and three new garden towns – on top of seven already approved.

Environment Journal approached a number of experts to assess to what extent they expect these new garden villages and towns to be true to Ebenezer Howard’s vision.

You can read their views on land value capture here. But what about the principle that they should involve development that enhances the natural environment, providing a comprehensive green infrastructure network and net biodiversity gains, and that uses zero-carbon and energy-positive technology to ensure climate resilience’?

The issue of viability, introduced into town planning procedures, is a challenge for local authorities when it comes to ensuring sustainability, according to Janet Askew, past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

‘Developers can simply say that they can’t build something sustainably, or include additional green space, as “it’s not viable”, she explains. ‘This notion of viability is incredibly damaging. Local authority planners are challenged on viability by developers. And local authorities are so denuded of planners and are not investing in planning enough: there are far less planners working in local authorities now. Architects and master planners do design excellent and sustainable schemes, but developers’ costings often knock these back.’

Askew is clear that ‘the RTPI continues to work hard to persuade local authorities to invest in planning, and demonstrates that the economy will be better if we have more town planners’, but is concerned that DCLG’s garden village programme appears to suggest planning restrictions will be softened. Will they be villages in name but not principle?

The think tank Policy Exchange has long advocated garden villages. Its 2015 publication, Garden Villages – Empowering localism to solve the housing crisis by Lord Matthew Taylor and Christopher Walker, advocated a revision of the New Towns Act and the establishment of locally led delivery agencies to ‘empower local authorities to establish new communities to meet local housing need’. It describes how this ‘would allow unwelcome and inappropriate development around existing communities to be firmly ruled out by the local authority’.

Warwick Lightfoot, Policy Exchange’s director of research and head of economics, explains: ‘We’re attracted to the notion of a garden village as a self-sustaining community without the awkwardness of travel for work, leisure and so on.’

He adds: ‘The other thing that is important is the aesthetic of the garden village. The arts and crafts movement found a way of expressing a domestic aesthetic that many people found attractive; but in the 2nd half of the 20th century, architects and builders were unable to respond to that aesthetic.’

Policy Exchange, according to Lightfoot, ‘is very concerned that people are provided with the aesthetic that they want, rather than having a different interpretation forced on them.’

He describes the garden village concept today as ‘operating in a highly constrained planning environment’. He says: ‘The builders deal with smaller plots and are much more constrained by the planning rules regarding what they can do in the plots. That is the inevitability of a planning system that constrains development. In the end you get homes that are tight and contained.

‘Not exclusive to the business of the garden village tradition, there are questions to ask about the quality of buildings. We know that building is highly regulated but when you encounter new builds and look at them a few years later, you will quite often encounter or observe design and structural problems.’

Is he confident that the new settlements will meet the key principle of enhancing the natural environment and providing a comprehensive green infrastructure network?

‘As to whether “garden” developments will meet that principle, the devil will be in the detail,’ Lightfoot says, adding ‘I’m sure that in principle most local authorities will be seeking commitments to it.

‘But I have observed a lot of new homes that are defective, in design terms and which suffer from many structural defects. This isn’t just about garden village developments, this quality issue is endemic to housing in general.

‘Policy Exchange are particularly interested in solutions to the crisis in housing supply and demand that not only provide homes where they are needed, but that result in building homes that people actually like.’

Location, location, location…

What makes a home that people like? The 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize asked the question ‘How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?’ One of the 279 entries was co-authored by Anthony Downs, director of planning and development at Gascoyne Cecil Estates, with Susan Parham of the University of Hertfordshire and Pablo Fernanadez and Gavin Murray of Brooks Murray Architects.

It would be fair to describe Gascoyne Cecil Estates advocates a long-term approach. Downs explains: ‘Much of the success (or failure) of these new settlements will depend upon whether or not they benefit from a “champion” in the form of a landowner or developer who is prepared to adopt a longer term approach and adhere to a higher quality of design and masterplanning.

‘Success won’t simply hinge upon design and early initiatives to involve the local community will assist in creating a true sense of place, a feeling of belonging and with it civic pride.

‘It is difficult to speak in generalities – each site will have its own opportunities, challenges and characteristics and if approached with care then it should be possible to create successful communities.’

Locations of new settlements is crucial, adds Askew:

‘In the RTPI we argue for sustainable locations for new settlements to ensure that they are built with access to public transport. New settlements must include access to workplaces; they should be built with a commitment to walkability and to sustainable and healthy living.

‘The new settlements’ locations are vital for sustainability. And if the will is there, anyone can now create a sustainable neighbourhood, one that is walkable, crime free, properly designed, with zero-carbon construction and which includes greenspace and communal areas. There is a huge amount of evidence and research into this; it is possible, so why don’t we do it? It comes down to money. Housebuilders and construction firms aren’t, in the main, keen to build sustainable dwellings as it costs more money.’

With consultations and masterplanning underway in many of the locations of the new garden towns and villages, it remains to be seen to what extent sustainability principles survive when the settlements are built. But entries to the 2014 Wolfson Prize provide plenty of inspiration.

For example, Downs, Parham, Fernanadez and Murray describe, how a ‘vision of combining the advantages of “the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country” can again be achieved’, laying out a vision which goes ‘beyond “business as usual” mindsets or “technological x” approaches, and instead combines Howard’s excellent principles with more innovative elements that reflect 21st century needs – in transport, energy, communications, environmental protection, economic growth and social life’.

Meanwhile, Askew says we can learn from some innovative developers working in cities, ‘especially some small scale inner-city brownfield developments – I have been to many that I would rave about’.

She adds: ‘Little Kelham in Sheffield [pictured, top] is a really interesting scheme on brownfield and old industrial land in Sheffield City Centre. It includes a thoughtful mix of uses: residential, leisure, community, and industrial. It is dense, it’s in the heart of Sheffield, and there must be so many similar locations in cities that could be used for similar developments.’

Densifying existing cities and towns is one thing. Building these new ‘garden’ settlements to be truly sustainable is another. And our absolute priority must be clear, says Askew: ‘If we are to modernise, to update, the garden city movement, then what we should be looking for is sustainability.’

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Jamie Veitch

Freelance writer and consultant

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