Garden cities – back to the future?

Ebenezer Howard

Image by Monty Trent on Flickr via a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

Today’s announcement that Bicester is to be the second new garden city with 13,000 new homes, is a reminder that the UK’s housing shortage requires large-scale solutions. According to the Town and Country Planning Association’s estimates, between 240,000 and 245,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031 to meet the needs of our growing population. This demand can only be met by building new settlements including schools, transport links, infrastructure and community facilities.

A new wave of garden cities

Three years ago the TCPA set out plans for reviving the garden city model, an idea originally conceived by Ebenezer Howard in 1898, and 40 years after the designation of the last New Town. In 2014 the key principles for today’s garden cities were outlined by the TCPA as:

  • strong vision, leadership and community engagement;
  • land value capture for the benefit of the community;
  • community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets;
  • mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are affordable for ordinary people;
  • beautifully and imaginatively designed homes with gardens in healthy communities;
  • a strong local jobs offer in the garden city itself and within easy commuting distance of homes;
  • opportunities for residents to grow their own food, including allotments;
  • generous green space, including: a surrounding belt of countryside to prevent sprawl; well-connected and biodiversity-rich public parks; high-quality gardens; tree-lined streets; and open spaces;
  • strong local cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable neighbourhoods;
  • integrated and accessible transport systems, with a series of settlements linked by rapid transport providing a full range of employment opportunities.

Although new settlements today have very different requirements from the first garden cities (sustainable development, higher quality design standards and re-use of brownfield land) the principles are similar.

The garden city concept was endorsed in April this year when the government set out its backing for a new wave of garden cities in a prospectus, ‘Locally-led garden cities’.

This sets out a package of aid for local areas interested in forming a new garden city, stating that “local areas can benefit from this potential, to help them meet the challenge of starting to plan and deliver their ambitions, making use of ‘garden city’ design to bring together homes, jobs, open space and create great places to live and raise their children”. The emphasis is on local support through a number of funding mechanisms to help delivery of developments (at, or above, the 15,000 homes level) “more quickly than is typical through the existing planning system”.

New towns in the pipeline: eco-towns and other new settlements

Plans for the new wave of garden cities haven’t yet got off the drawing board. However, some new towns are in the planning pipeline. Most notable are those developed as part of the previous government’s Eco-Towns programme (set out in Eco-towns prospectus, 2007 and Eco-towns: a supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1, 2009), which, as the name suggests, were intended to achieve exemplary standards of sustainable development and aim to achieve zero carbon development.

Eco-towns, though generally smaller than the garden cities (5-20,000 homes), have some features in common such as mixed-use communities. The successful eco-town bids in 2009 included the following:

There has been criticism however as to whether any of these new settlements will meet the original eco-town vision.

TCPA’s New Communities Group, set up to support local authorities and other groups planning and delivering large-scale sustainable new communities, provides further information on all these settlements and others, such as Chilmington Green in Ashford, Kent. This urban extension of 5,750 new homes, which will be divided into three neighbourhoods, reflects many of the design principles of a successful garden city, including tree-lined streets, a spacious layout with high-quality public spaces and a strong local community. The project recently received a resolution to grant planning permission, subject to finalising a Section 106 agreement, so watch this space.

The new settlement to be built on a brownfield site at Ebbsfleet in Kent has been the subject of debate for years. But finally in April 2014 the government announced that an Urban Development Corporation would be set with £220m of public money to jump start the development of up to 15,000 new homes. However, the TCPA has doubts over whether garden city principles will be upheld, maintaining that “it will be extremely challenging to successfully uphold the garden city principles at Ebbsfleet because it is problematic to retrofit ideas such as land value capture once planning permission has been granted”.

So……“How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?”

This was the question posed to this year’s Wolfson Economics Prize competitors. As a result a number of very different plans were submitted, all of which provided interesting and innovative ideas about how to deliver a new garden city including:

Be a pioneer (submission for Wolfson Economics Prize) – Barton Willmore

Charthills Green: a garden city in the garden of England – Chris Blundell

How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular? – Shelter

New garden cities: visionary, economically viable and popular – Wei Yang & Partners

And the winner was…David Rudlin’s proposal for Uxcester garden city. This entry included proposals for a Garden City Act which would allow cities to bid for ‘garden city status’ that would enable them to double in size while protecting most of the green belt land and providing new homes for up to 150,000 people. The judges particularly liked the idea that this presented a transferable model applicable to around 40 locations in the UK.

Interestingly, a poll of 6,166 Britons, commissioned by the Wolfson Economic Prize, found that three-quarters of them thought that garden cities would protect more countryside than the alternatives for delivering the housing we need, so maybe this is indeed the way forward.


Further reading:

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on garden cities and new settlements. Some further recent reading on the topic includes:

Finding common cause for a garden city, IN Town and Country Planning, Vol 83 No 3 Mar 2014, pp110-113

Building a very 21st century garden city, IN MJ, 30 Oct 2014, pp22-23

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city, IN New Start, No 525 Oct 2014, pp1-4

Garden cities: breaking new ground. Savills (2014)

Forward into the past: garden cities. David Lock Associates (2014)

Realising an eco-community in Cornwall (regeneration of Clay County Area of Cornwall), IN Town and Country Planning, Vol 83 No 5 May 2014, pp224-229

Garden cities. House of Commons Library (2014)

New Towns Act 2015? Town and Country Planning Association (2014)

New garden neighbourhoods: a fresh approach to sustainable urban extensions. Barton Willmore (2013)

N.B. Abstracts and access to journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

One thought on “Garden cities – back to the future?

  1. Pingback: Counting down to 2015 … a year in policy (part 1) | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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