Vital Cities not Garden Cities

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The Coventry Society had a challenging and fascinating presentation on Monday 14th January 2019 from Architect John Prevc. John was a member of the Future Spaces Foundation which was set up to promote a new vision for the future of housing in the UK.

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The Government and many others seem to be fixated on the concept of Garden Cities as the policy direction for future housing development in the UK.

The concept of Garden Cities dates back to Ebenezer Howard in the Victorian era. It was originally proposed as a response to the overcrowding and industrial pollution of rapidly expanding Victorian London. Howard aimed to combine the best the city and the countryside had to offer, creating holistically planned new settlements. These would provide high-quality and – importantly – affordable housing, as well as employment opportunities and a thriving community.

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The concept led to the development of a generation of New Towns and New Cities in the post-war years.

Even now the Government, all major political parties and a number of other agencies are promoting plans for three 21st century Garden Cities of around 15,000 homes each, incorporating large areas of open space and parkland. The first new project is already under way at Ebbsfleet in Kent and plans for the second Garden City, in Bicester in Oxfordshire, were announced at the end of 2014.

ebbsfleet

The spirit of Arcadia conjured up by Garden Cities is an attractive one but it cannot solve today’s housing problem. The low density of development associated with garden cities brings with it increased reliance on motor cars with increased pollution. The lack of employment and services associated with the lack of a critical mass makes it impossible for these communities to be economically sustainable.  The amount of land needed to solve the housing need in this way would cover the countryside with development.

John and the Foundation argue that we need to learn the lessons from Garden Cities and New Towns and apply them to our 21st century problems, rather than replicate Victorian solutions to a different problem.

The current shortage of new homes has been a major contributor to a UK house price bubble that saw inflation adjusted prices rise 86% between 2000 and 2007 while the annual home-building rate rose only 19%. These numbers are clearly not sustainable.

However building these houses at low densities in Garden Cities is not a practical solution to the housing crisis. It would cover an enormous amount of the available land and would take a generation for the new communities to become established. You would need 67 Garden Cities of 30,000 population to address the projected shortage of one million homes in London and the Home Counties over the next 25 years!

Instead John suggested that increasing density around urban cores and on strong public transport corridors, close to medium size towns is a more appropriate solution.

However the report does not argue for higher density in isolation from other changes. It argues for intense functional greenspace embedded into developments and protecting the green areas on the edges of cities. Embedding nature at all scales and vertical levels of a building, a street and a city brings a vital connection into everyday lives.

The Foundation’s ultimate ambition is to create vital places in the heart of towns and cities where people can live and work and which deliver economically and environmentally sustainable urban spaces, offering residents access to employment, public services and shopping. Higher density settlements are also more effective in generating mixed communities, social integration and safety and this is what we should aspire to.

“Living more densely means you have to design better. You need to think about things like views, green spaces, insulation, sound-proofing and so on in much more detail than in low-density developments.”

The Vital Cities report can be read here. 

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